Opening up the Google-China mailbag

A lot of mail has piled up, largely from readers in China, and lots of reactions, sensible and otherwise, from the commentariat. As a step toward working off the backlog, a very interesting message from a reader with a Chinese name. Most of what I have received has been (sometimes interestingly) entirely-pro or entirely-anti Google, or pro- or anti- China. This one has some of both. Also, see a policy notes about language at the end.*

The reader writes:

"I have no sympathy for Google. I'd like to describe the situation as 始乱终弃----it's a Chinese phrase that describes a person who starts an illicit sexual liaison and ends up getting hurt and dumped. Google compromised the integrity of its core service by giving people censored search results as if they are not in order to make money "in the long haul". Now it looks Baidu, a late comer and emulator, will continue to dominate the Chinese search market. Google's prospect of of meaningful profitability is looking dimmer in the long haul. So it chooses to exit in this spectacular fashion.

"The complaint about the gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists being hacked seems a telltale sign that this is just a PR drama. It sounds so plausible, even romantic. A shining youthful hi-tech brand that represents personal freedom and infinite possibilities of the digital age refuses to bend over further in front of an anachronic and repressive authoritarian state machine, out of principle. Give me a break! There is nothing new in Chinese hacking into gmail or corporate and government infrastructures. Four years ago I and other friends of Dai Qing's got a fake email from her gmail account. I had to reformat my hard drive because I opened up an innocent looking attachment from my friend XX XX, whose  email account was hacked. The Chinese have been doing this kind of things since before Google entered the Chinese market.
"But hypocrisy aside, I do think the strong reaction to and universal support for Google's announcement indicate something important. This may be a harbinger for something that China hopefully will take seriously. It shows it may be too early for China to be so arrogant, and that its rise as a superpower cannot rely solely on its economic might. It has to earn the respectability of the world. It also shows that seemingly small matters will matter someday down the road. Calling the Dalai Lama a wolf in sheep's skin, lecturing Obama that as a black man he should distance himself from the Tibetan spiritual leader because he represents slavery, and letting a sub-cabinet level official wag a finger in front of the American president during a Copenhagen meeting, etc. These are all small matters. But people remember them. When you put them together with the more serious matters such as giving a writer 11 years for writing an open letter, maintaining an overly selfish currency regime, aggressive trade practices and energy deals, and now bullying the beloved Google, it creates a narrative that can prove to be very costly for China.

"This narrative updates and unites the old ideological cliche about communist regimes with negative feelings about China that are more emotional and maybe even cultural. It may make people feel, more than think, that, after all, this rising power is more of a dragon than a panda.

"I still try to hold on to the faith that China will not be like that. When I listened to people like Qin Xiao, the Chairman of China Merchant Group, the country's largest, and best managed, private bank, spoke recently on the Caijing annual forum and later in New York during the National Committee event, I felt very hopeful that they represent China's future. I hope the massive negative reaction from the United States to the Google incident will strengthen their hands in China by showing those Machiavellian officials that behaving in a stupid, mean and arrogant way does have a cost, and that their way will only lead to a dead end. You may get away by offending an hurting some people sometimes, but not many people all the time."


Language note: Usually when quoting reader responses, I leave them just as they are, warts and all. But if I am sure that the note is from a non-native speaker of English, I will sometimes correct small mistakes of spelling, grammar, or usage -- "have" for "has," "hypocracy" for "hypocrisy," -- that would unduly draw attention to themselves. In this note I made three or four of these tiny copy clean-ups while leaving the rest of the phrasing and word choice unchanged. Writing in a second or third language is one of the harder intellectual challenges that exist. (Hey, writing in a first language is not always that easy!) Even though English has a larger share of non-native speakers and writers than any other language and therefore a greater tolerance for "diversity," I think it's justified to remove minor brambles from the writer's path.

I admit that this practice leaves a logical gray zone. If somebody seems to be a native speaker who just writes sloppily, I don't bother trying to save that person from himself. But if I quickly get the sense that this is not a native speaker -- and within a sentence or two I think I can always tell --  I may do a little cleanup. The gray zone is when the command of grammar is shaky enough to raise questions, but not unusual enough to suggest that the writer grew up with a different language and therefore deserves affirmative-action help. This is all part of the endless saga of language being one of the most absorbing aspects of dealing with different cultures.