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What's really at stake in Google vs. China

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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Fareed Zakaria says Google's dispute with China isn't just a business matter
  • He says it raises the question of China's strong constraints on flow of information
  • Zakaria says China is showing signs of turning inward
  • He says it would be a negative if fastest-growing economy became more insular
RELATED TOPICS
  • Internet
  • Hillary Clinton
  • Google Inc.
  • China

Editor's note: Fareed Zakaria is an author and foreign affairs analyst who hosts "Fareed Zakaria GPS" on CNN U.S. on Sundays at 1 and 5 p.m. ET and CNN International 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. CET / 5 p.m. Abu Dhabi / 9 p.m. HK

New York (CNN) -- Google's threat to shut down its operations in China might seem like just a dispute between a private company and a government, but the implications are huge for the world's fastest-growing economy, for the United States and for global relations, says analyst Fareed Zakaria.

With the dispute in the background, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday the U.S. is committed to freedom of speech online and to freedom from the fear of cyber-attacks.

The Google-China dispute surfaced January 12 when the search engine company said it and other companies were the target of cyber-attacks originating in China aimed at gaining access to the e-mail of Chinese advocates for human rights.

Google announced that it is no longer willing to comply with China's requirements that it censor the results of searches in that country. The State Department has told China it is concerned about the issue.

Zakaria, author and host of CNN's "Fareed Zakaria: GPS" spoke to CNN Wednesday.

CNN: What's the dispute between Google and China all about?

Fareed Zakaria: At one level, the dispute is about one company and the difficulty it's having doing business in China, but it's really a much broader issue. It's about two things really. The first is the tension between China's drive for modernity and its attempt to control information.

China has very successfully modernized over the last few decades, but it places unique limits on information. Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, told me that China is the only country in the world where they had to basically sign up for a censorship regime.

The second issue: Is China turning inward? Is it beginning to believe it needs the world less than it has in the past few decades? That would have very profound consequences both for China-US relations and for the world.

CNN: What gives you the feeling that China might be turning inward?

Zakaria: It's not just the problems they've had with Google. Over the last few years, there's been the rise in China of what the Chinese call "The new right," a group of people, fairly influential in the establishment, who argue that China should be more aggressive toward the West, more aggressive toward America, that it doesn't need the U.S. as much as it did. There is also the reality that China's economy, as it has grown, is becoming large enough that China doesn't depend as much on the rest of the world for exports. It has accumulated huge surpluses of capital.

All of this is producing a China that is more parochial, more inward-looking and potentially more adversarial in its relationships with the West. If you look at the way it handled the Copenhagen summit, it's really quite striking.

The Chinese are usually protocol-obsessed. And here they had a situation where Obama wanted to meet with Wen Jiabao, the Chinese leader who was there. Now Obama technically outranks Wen Jiabao because he is a head of state. Wen Jiabao is the premier, the prime minister. Ordinarily that would mean that Wen Jiabao would go to see Obama. The reverse happened and Obama attended the meetings. Chinese officials scolded him. All of this is very unusual.

CNN: In a sense Google is raising a broader issue than the immediate issue they uncovered. They uncovered evidence that there was hacking of their sites and those of other American companies. But rather than deal with the hacking issue, they brought up the whole issue of having to have a filtered search engine in China. They're saying they're no longer willing to do that. So what's their real motivation?

Zakaria: Having spoken to Eric Schmidt for years about this, they were always uncomfortable with the system of censorship they had to sign up to in China. But they believed at the end of the day that it was a huge market, and they could do well and it could help open up information in China.

I think they came to the conclusion that China has such an elaborate apparatus of censorship but also an elaborate apparatus of cyber-warfare or cyberattack. They were really not able to have that broader beneficial effect.

Let's remember that China doesn't only have what's called the great firewall of China, the filtering and censoring system. They also have a very aggressive system of cyber-spying and cyberattack, probably the most sophisticated in the world. I should point out there are people who say Google did this because they weren't doing well in China, that they had lost market share to Baidu, a local Web search engine.

Baidu is definitely the leader, but it doesn't make any sense to quit a market because you're not the market leader. By the way, Google is not dominant in other countries and they still participate. I take them at face value, that this was a decision prompted by values. You wouldn't give up whatever percent of the world's fastest-growing market for no rhyme or reason.

They clearly were uncomfortable with this tension between their mission -- which they see as widening access to information everywhere all the time -- and China's very elaborate set of constraints on information.

By the way there's a national security component for this for the United States and other countries. Cyber-spying is clearly an effort by the Chinese to move into the information age and adopt a kind of asymmetrical warfare. China is not matching the U.S. military, ship for ship, but if it develops a very sophisticated capability to destroy command and control systems, computer systems, that's a very potent weapon in any kind of conflict, military or otherwise.

CNN: Getting back to Google's motivation, you do take their "Don't be evil" motto at face value?

Zakaria: I don't know if I take it in all places and at all times, but I do believe in this case they were motivated largely by the sense that they were undermining their values and their mission. I recognize that were this to have been churning out billions of dollars in revenue, they might not have done it. But I don't think you can make the case that there was a business motivation for this. This will clearly cost them revenue, it may not cost them a huge amount of revenue, but it will cost them.

CNN: How do we know that the hacking is being done by the Chinese government rather than by individual hackers on their own?

Zakaria: We don't know that for sure. In fact, Eric Schmidt was clear to me about that. The nature of the hacking, the coordinated elements of it, the targets, all suggest that it is something that is being done at the very least with the acquiescence or encouragement of the state. There are very few experts I've talked to who doubt that much of this has the backing of the Chinese government, but to be clear it's very difficult to tell, and there's no conclusive proof.

CNN: All of this suggests that the U.S. government has a lot at stake, and yet they don't seem to have been on the frontlines of this issue. It's a private company dealing with the Chinese government, not a government-to-government issue.

Zakaria: That's right. Washington is treading very cautiously into this, and I think correctly because this is really a dispute between China and a private company in America. The U.S. government should watch it with great interest and concern, and they should come out in favor of certain broad principles, but I don't think the U.S. government should be out there trying to open up the market for Google.

CNN: On the national security side, should the government be more active?

Zakaria: It's trying to figure out how to respond to this kind of attack, but I gather there is a fairly sustained effort now in the government. Obama has made this a top priority.

CNN: What's at stake for other American businesses that want to serve the Chinese market?

Zakaria: I think a lot is at stake, because what we're basically talking about is China's orientation, China's belief that it has to accept a global system and an open global economy, that it benefits from having foreign companies participate on an equal footing.

The more China turns inward, the more difficult it will be for American companies to find equal footing in China. The Chinese are making it increasingly clear they want to have national champions. Avatar opened in China to great success and two weeks later they basically shut it down [except for 3-D showings] and said that the movie theaters had to make way for a biopic about Confucius, and more importantly keep theaters free for Chinese-made movies.

CNN: So what can the United States do about it?

Zakaria: Washington should try to have a really sustained strategic dialogue with China, but also with our other allies, with the European countries, with Japan, and create a kind of common front for openness and greater engagement with the global system.

One of the things that has helped the global system enormously is that it had two hegemons, two global superpowers -- first Britain and then the United States -- that were very outward-oriented and shared universal values and similar conceptions of a global system, open liberal values, an open economy, a common understanding of what would make for a good global system.

If China as the great rising power turns out to be much more insular, parochial in its orientation, that would mean a much less stable, much less open world order. Think about the period of American isolationism when the United States was the rising power and it turned inward in the 1920s and 1930s. It was not good for the world.

CNN: Can the Chinese government continue to limit expression of political views as its economy grows and the Web becomes an ever more important medium of communication worldwide?

Zakaria: That's the trillion-dollar question. So far China has been remarkably successful at maintaining a system that has embraced markets, but also maintained a very controlled political system.

My own view is that that cannot last forever, but that China is still in the early stages of modernization, and it is quite possible that it will be able to continue doing this for several decades. But I think it's very difficult to imagine China being a truly innovative country at the cutting edge of the information age, of global economics, if it has all these constraints on information, all this political control on human-to-human contact, which is what the next wave of the information age is all about.

Ultimately the question is: Can China be a world leader that is admired, imitated and that shapes the global system and global values? There I have my doubts that an insular, inward-looking China that maintains tight political control over information and human contact will end up being the country that becomes the model for the world.