Vicky Xiong (Feedster's director of international biz dev) and I had dinner in Beijing last night with Kevin Wen of Bokee. I asked Kevin if the Google Goes To China debate was getting as much play over in China as it is in the States, and he assured me that it is big news here indeed. We continued a conversation we began at last November's Shanghai Blogger's Conference.
Kevin has an interesting perspective - he is Chinese, attended college at the University of Texas, and worked in Austin and Dallas for awhile after college before joining Bokee as VP Business Development and moving back to Beijing. Bokee is one of China's largest blog service providers; Kevin told me they currently host about 7.5 million blogs (though, like everywhere else, not all of them are active; people have a habit of creating and abandoning blogs. Heck, I did it myself six months ago, before resurrecting it last week).
Kevin contrasts the Western view of the Internet with what he sees as a typical Chinese view. In the Western view, we look at our "free" media and wide-open Internet, and see the Chinese restrictions as curbing freedoms we take for granted. In China, the Internet has been a catalyst for a much freer flow of information than was ever possible before, and this trend is destined to continue toward a freer Internet and more open society.
For a society accustomed to navigating around a tightly-controlled media and reading between the lines to understand what is really happening, even a crippled Internet is a huge step forward. And the Chinese people have shown a great deal of creativity in navigating around the "Great Firewall" to find content that they aren't given direct access to. Any tool, like Google, that makes this easier is welcomed.
Kevin also reminded me that just as in the West, the vast majority of internet usage, and content, has nothing to do with politics, human rights, or other "sensitive" topics. For every blogger that talks about those subjects, there are hundreds that deal with music, family, social life, popular culture, and more mundane personal expression. He sums up his point by saying "We're so busy enjoying the 90% of the Internet we have little time to complain about the 10% that we don't have". And observing that a couple years ago the 90% was substantially lower, and a couple years from now it will inevitably be higher.
As a Westerner, even one who's lived in developing countries and traveled a great deal, a couple visits to China doesn't qualify me to understand or judge Kevin's or any other Chinese point of view on this or any other topic. But it's worth considering all points of view before we rush to a judgment based on our own narrow perspective. My experience in discussing potential partnerships with Chinese Internet companies over the past few months is that they look at dealing with "filtering", as they generally refer to it, as just one of many technical and business issues they face, like accounting, taxes, and server infrastructure.
Of course, by definition these executives have already made the conscious decision to work within the system and come to terms with the tradeoffs involved in doing so; this is by no means a representative sample of the Chinese population. And it doesn't address the fundamental question of whether the act of engaging and dealing with a repressive regime is in and of itself "evil", even if the end result of doing so is an incremental improvement in people's lives. But it is interesting nevertheless.