In January 2010, Google shut down its Chinese search engine, allegedly because the Chinese government had backed cyber-attacks against the Google accounts of Chinese human rights activists and had continuously requested Google to block sensitive information from Chinese users. Google’s decision triggered a diplomatic crisis between the United States and China.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a speech on internet freedom soon after Google’s decision. She said: “The most recent situation involving Google has attracted a great deal of interest (of America) And we look to the Chinese authorities to conduct a thorough review of the cyber intrusions that led Google to make its announcement … Our government is committed to helping promote internet freedom.” The Chinese government expressed its dissatisfaction and indignation at Google’s ungrounded accusations and irresponsible behavior.
In August 2018, the Twitter account of the People’s Daily announced that: "Google is welcome to the mainland, but it’s a prerequisite that it must comply with the requirements of the law.” The tweet also reiterated China’s commitment to be open to the world in the future “based on its own national conditions.” This was interpreted as a policy signal that Beijing welcomed Google back to the mainland China market it left eight years ago, after fulfilling several requirements. Various sources later confirmed this.
The contemporary controversies arise over Google’s search app customized for mainland China users. A group of Google engineers are designing the new search tool called “Dragonfly” which allows the Chinese government to adopt censorship mechanisms in the app. Google employees, human rights groups and democratization activists criticized Google for serving authoritarian regimes for the sake of commercial interests. US Vice President Mike Pence also called for Google to “immediately end development of the ‘Dragonfly’ app that will strengthen Communist Party censorship and compromise the privacy of Chinese customers.” The Chinese government tried to keep low profile before Google’s formal return, leaving Google alone to face immense criticisms.
The key questions that we are concerned with is the extent to which China will customize Google.cn and in particular the censorship mechanisms in the new app. I believe, there are at least four reasons why China should not (or not too much) customize Google.cn.
First, Xi Jinping is promoting the confidence doctrine, calling for Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members, government officials and ordinary people to be “confident in our chosen path, confident in our political system, and confident in our guiding theories.” The “Three Confidences” is for political propaganda purposes and could hardly reshape people’s confidence into the communist party’s ideology. However, Beijing should also be aware that most mainland Chinese have no intention to overthrow the current regime. After four decades of reform, China ruled by CCP has successfully improved the general welfare of its people and increased its national status in the world system. And it is widely believed that, despite the inherent crises and socioeconomic problems in contemporary China, gradual reform remains the best and possibly most effective option. In particular, many middle-class Chinese have developed a better understanding about the contemporary world via directly visiting foreign countries, reading international news, or other appropriate means. Compared with most developing countries — including democracies — the Chinese government remains efficient, rule-based, and human-oriented. Internet freedom could not threaten the CCP’s governance fundamentally.
Although internet freedom challenges the CCP’s rule to some extent, the benefits of having an uncensored Google.cn are not limited to purely economic terms.
In addition, the public can tell the China story better compared to the government. In an open internet world, the voices of ordinary Chinese can be heard by the world and thus promote the mutual understanding between China and the world.
Second, the rise of extreme nationalism in China is becoming a defining factor in shaping China’s foreign policies. China’s territorial disputes with Southeast Asian countries, India, and especially with Japan are the hot-button issues that can easily arouse popular anger and anti-foreign sentiment in China. Even in cross-Strait relations, a strong anti-Taiwan sentiment is surging in Chinese social media, although mainland Chinese used to be on intimate terms with Taiwanese due to a shared language, ethnic background and culture. The Chinese government is allegedly fueling nationalism at home to tackle its legitimacy crises but could also suffer from the backlash. Extreme nationalism may destabilize society, disturb the government’s economic agenda, constrain Beijing’s foreign policy options, and raise the likelihood of escalation in international crises to appease domestic nationalism.
The building of extreme nationalism, either backed by Chinese government or not, is based on the availability of partial information. The public may easily believe that China is innocent and is being bullied by foreign countries, and thus pressure the government to stand firm and escalate to defend the national honor. Internet freedom could help the public know the multiple dimensions of the world and international affairs, understand the moves of foreign policies, and possibly tolerate self-restraining and rational response by the Chinese government in international crises.
Third, internet freedom is key to cultivate civil society and improve the governing performance of local government. The major source of the CCP’s legitimacy of rule comes from its economic achievements which have increased the overall welfare of the Chinese people. However, in a pro-growth political system, local governments have no election pressure and only try their best to develop the economy, leaving behind the marginalized poor in the fast-changing socioeconomic development. Despite the noises on the internet, the voices of the poor and weak want to be heard and represented in the policy agenda, but local governments tend to exploit their administrative power and enhance internet censorship in name of weiwen (stabilizing society) and daju (the grand situation) of development. Google’s return to China could possibly expand internet freedom in China. This could enhance public pressure over the arbitrary use of administrative power by the governments and serve as an effective tool of supervision by public opinion.
Last but not least, with the rise of its economic strengths and international status, China keep updating its “Go Out Policy”, encouraging its enterprises to invest in high-quality and high-level projects overseas and promote the brand recognition of Chinese products and companies. Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious development strategy aimed at enhancing connectivity, trade and investment in Eurasia regions. However, a common challenge for the Chinese people and corporations is the lack of knowledge about foreign cultures, religion, politics and other dimensions of local context. Even the Chinese government lacks a systemic understanding about investment environments. It simply assumes that economic development is achievable via borrowing, infrastructure building and attracting foreign investment. From this perspective, China needs to be connected with the world through the uncensored Google.
Google’s return will test Beijing’s political wisdom. Although internet freedom challenges the CCP’s rule to some extent, the benefits of having an uncensored Google.cn are not limited to purely economic terms. By embracing internet freedom, the CCP has an opportunity to tie its own hands and avoid the arbitrary use of power, connect with the outside world, and be deeply involved in the international community.
 Hillary Clinton, “Remarks on Internet Freedom”. 21 January 2010, Retrieved from
 “The principal of the Internet Bureau at the State Council Information Office’s press conference on Google’s announcement to withdraw from the Chinese market,” 23 March 2010. Retrieved from
 Yu Ning, “Stability prerequisite for China’s internet opening up”. 10 August 2018, Retrieved from
 “Vice President Mike Pence’s remarks on the administration’s policy towards China,” 4 October 2018. Retrieved from