Hillary Clinton’s fierce condemnation of Internet censorship in a speech Thursday, and her strong support for Google in its clash with Beijing, puts Washington on a collision course with China on a key issue of principle.
“The language of her speech amounts to a political showdown,” says Shi Yinhong, an influential expert on US-China relations at Beijing’s Renmin University. “This is what the Chinese government had hoped for least.”
The secretary of State’s blunt condemnation of China’s strict Internet censorship – a central plank in the government’s information policy - is likely to put new strains on Washington’s relationship with Beijing, in which the Obama administration has placed high hopes.
“This will give a lot of support to hard-liners in the government who see the US as adopting a more assertive posture in trying to direct China’s future,” says Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based political analyst. “Mrs. Clinton was trying to give succor to liberal-minded elements in society here, but it is not going to play well” with the authorities.
Clinton: Chinese risk 'walling themselves off'
Clinton threw down a direct challenge to Beijing’s censors, pledging to help citizens here jump the “Great Fire Wall” that blocks access to tens of thousands of websites. She announced that Washington would go on “supporting the development of new tools that enable citizens to exercise their right of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship,” and “make sure that those tools get to the people who need them.”
She also warned China’s rulers that their censorship risked “walling themselves off from the progress of the next century.”
Though such talk “will not go down well” with the government, says Kaiser Kuo, a writer on Internet affairs and US-China relations, Clinton’s call on US companies to resist censorship “will resonate positively among Chinese netizens.”
In a 2008 survey by WorldPublicOpinion.org, an international polling firm, 66 percent of Chinese respondents said they “should have the right to read whatever is on the Internet.”
Clinton’s speech, however, “won’t change people’s minds,” Mr. Kuo predicted. As Chinese netizens watched her speech – webcast live and linked to several Chinese blogs – many of them crowded onto chat rooms to offer divided opinions. “There will always be those who chafe against censorship and those who defend the regime,” says Kuo.
Meanwhile, the secretary of State’s bid to rally US business behind her Internet freedom crusade will pose awkward problems for Beijing.
“Chinese officials have managed for many years to distinguish between American companies and American policies,” says Moses. “The new line from the United States suggests that this is going to be tougher now.”
Blurring lines between commerce and foreign policy?
The Chinese government has sought to cast Google’s threat to withdraw from China unless it can provide uncensored search results as primarily a commercial dispute.
Earlier Thursday, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei had sought to depoliticize the conflict, insisting that Google should resolve its problems through legal channels, and that “people should not over-interpret [the incident] and say there is a problem between the Chinese and American governments.”
In her speech, however, Clinton blurred the line between commerce and foreign policy, saying she hoped that “refusal to support politically motivated censorship will become a trademark characteristic of American technology companies. It should be part of our nation’s brand.”
Clinton said she was inviting US companies providing network services to a high level meeting next month “for talks on internet freedom. We hope to work together to address this challenge.”
It is unclear how many US firms, anxious to do business in a market as large as China’s, are likely to follow Google’s lead. Though Yahoo said last week it was “aligned” with its rival, that drew a strong protest from Yahoo’s partner in China, AliBaba. Microsoft has shown no signs of publicly criticizing the Chinese government.
Clinton’s strong stand is likely to please human rights groups who have complained that the Obama administration has been too soft on China’s rights violations.
Last February, on her first visit to China as secretary of State, she said that “pressing on those issues,” such human rights, “can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crises. We have to have a dialogue that leads to an understanding and cooperation on each of those.”
On Thursday, she baldly accused China, along with other nations, of violating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and said Washington would address its differences with Beijing over Internet freedom “candidly and consistently.”
“We cannot stand by while people are separated from our human family by walls of censorship,” she declared. “And we cannot be silent about these issues simply because we cannot hear their cries.”