Clash of the Titans

By Zakaria, Fareed | Newsweek, January 25, 2010 | Go to article overview

Clash of the Titans


Zakaria, Fareed, Newsweek


Byline: Fareed Zakaria

How the Democratic Republic of Google is testing China's appetite for democracy itself.

Google's decision to defy Beijing's rules censoring the Internet could be seen as an isolated event--one company pulling out of China for a set of specific reasons. Certainly many other firms are acting that way, hoping to continue their pursuit of profits in the fastest-growing market in the world. But in fact Google's decision reflects important and expanding strains within China, and in its relations with the rest of the world.

"China places unique limits on information," Google CEO Eric Schmidt pointed out to me last week. It is the only major country with an elaborate, formal system of censorship that all information-oriented companies must accept. That's why in China, if you type the words "Tiananmen Square" or "Dalai Lama" into Google (or Baidu, the country's leading search engine), you will find mostly blocked sites. At the same time, China has been busily developing the world's most elaborate apparatus devoted to cyber-spying and cyberattacks. Chinese hacking has ramped up over the past few years, directed not only at human-rights organizations, but, importantly, at foreign businesses and governments. Many, if not most, such attacks originate from China; former National Security Agency director William Studeman has called them the "biggest single problem" facing the U.S. national-security establishment.

Great powers spy on each other, but China's efforts appear to be unusually intense. They are also new. U.S. officials who have served in the People's Republic say that only a decade ago, they didn't need to sweep the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for bugs because the Chinese government would never spy on America so blatantly, for fear of the loss of face it would suffer if discovered.

The most significant shift that might be taking place in Beijing right now is an increasing disregard for its relationship with Washington and the West in general. During the 1980s and 1990s, Beijing's strategy of modernization produced a simple foreign policy: be nice to the West, particularly the Americans. The Chinese government needed the United States as a source of capital, as a market for its exports, as a provider of technology and know-how, and as a political ally to achieve China's goals, such as membership in the World Trade Organization. From Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin, China's leaders followed that path and kept their eyes on the prize.

But over the past few years, China has been changing. Many within the ruling elite seem to believe that they no longer need the United States as much as they once did. How else to explain Chinese behavior toward U.S. officials and businessmen? At Copenhagen, China displayed an unprecedented level of disregard for the United States and other Western countries. Here is the former National Security Council official and seasoned China scholar Kenneth Lieberthal's analysis of that event and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's negotiating strategy:

"Chinese diplomacy at this meeting overall was somewhat puzzling. Second-level Chinese officials showed up at critical meetings of heads of state on Friday afternoon--the kind of clumsy tactic that Beijing is usually far too smart to employ. The open dissent at the Friday-evening meeting--including having one member of Wen's delegation shout and wag his finger at President Obama--suggests that Wen had lost control over his own negotiating team. (Wen told the translator not to translate this official's initial outburst and then simply ignored him the second time he raised his voice.) Was Wen going beyond the limits of his negotiating authority? Were members of his negotiating team protecting their personal flanks back in Beijing?"

Whatever the explanation, Beijing's behavior was novel. The Chinese government is usually obsessed with protocol, and would never before have treated a head of state like Obama, who outranks Wen, so cavalierly. …

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