Austin Bay

Last month's clash between Google and China was definitely a 21st century tiff, as the Great Search Engine of America's Silicon Valley collided with China's Great Firewall, the still-communist software filter that surrounds the Middle Kingdom's digital terrain.

The Google versus China battle repeated elements of the classic struggle between an "open society" and a "closed society." Google accused the Chinese government of hacking the email accounts of human rights activists and told China that it was "no longer willing to continue censoring" Internet search results for terms like "Tiananmen Square." Yes, the Beijing government gets very touchy when its own citizens inquire about the mass murder that occurred there in 1989.

The Chinese government huffed that it was only practicing "Internet management." Great bureaucratic phrase, that dry, self-justifying jargon for identifying and silencing native Chinese who want the same open access to information their Asian neighbors in Japan, South Korea and (shudder) Taiwan possess.

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The U.S. government's response to the clash was aggressively pro-Google. On Jan. 21, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a fascinating speech on Internet freedom. Clinton, commenting on the Google-China contretemps, said that "countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of Internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century."

Walling off. Great Wall. Great Firewall. Hey, the pun has diplomatic punch.

Restricting the flow of information is directly analogous to historical restrictions on contacts with foreigners and loosely analogous to restrictions on international trade.

In the past, many nations have closed seaports to foreign ships in an attempt to stop their people from meeting and greeting foreigners. The potentates controlling the ports had their reasons. Foreigners might disrupt the locals with "dangerous" or "contaminating" foreign ideas. The peasants must be protected from "disruptive influences." The next step? Marrying foreigners! The emperor frowns on that.

During their long and extraordinary histories, China and Japan have both "turned inward" and limited contacts with the outside world. They may have protected their cultural identities, but they also fossilized politically, economically and technologically.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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