Will Facebook and Google come back to China? The Chinese government says they can, as long as they “respect China’s laws.”
Yesterday at a press conference held in preparation for the upcoming World Internet Conference, a Bloomberg reporter asked Ren Xianliang, deputy director of the Cyberspace Administration of China (which oversees internet governance) if the government would permit the two American internet giants to re-enter China. Both companies still have business-facing services in China, but Google effectively closed its consumer-facing search engine there in 2010, and authorities have blocked Facebook’s social network since 2009.
Ren replied (link in Chinese):
“China’s internet development has always maintained a policy of openness. As for foreign internet companies, as long as they respect China’s laws, don’t harm the interests of the country, and don’t harm the interests of consumers, we welcome them to enter China, where they can together share the benefits of China’s developing internet.”
The English-language version of the People’s Daily, a party mouthpiece, later published an article summarizing Ren’s remarks entitled “Facebook is welcome in China as long as it abides by Chinese laws: authority.”
By “China’s laws,” Ren is referring to the country’s strict censorship apparatus, which prevents internet users from seeking and spreading information considered critical of the Communist Party. Ren’s stance follows the party line. In 2010, when Google began mulling a withdrawal from China, foreign ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu said in a press conference that “China’s internet is open,” adding that the government “welcomes international internet corporations to do business in China in accordance with law.”
Via a mixture of algorithms and workers, domestic internet companies collaborate with the government to curb online dissent and censor certain keywords, and they share private user data with authorities when asked. Meanwhile, China’s Great Firewall blocks consumer access to many overseas sites, including Facebook and Google, as they currently don’t censor content at the scope the Chinese government demands.
But that hasn’t stopped the internet giants from attempting to make inroads in China. Facebook has an office in Beijing, and many observers believe Mark Zuckerberg’s China charm offensive is a bid to get on the government’s good side before launching a product there. Meanwhile, it’s long been rumored that Google is attempting to launch an app store in China. The release of any consumer-facing service in China, particularly in search or social networking, would require these two companies to censor content and potentially help incarcerate individuals the state perceives as threats.
Some Chinese internet users were quick to criticize Ren’s comments. “I just want to ask—what kind of law are you asking them to abide by? The Chinese Constitution says that citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech and press,” wrote one commenter (link in Chinese) on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-esque social network. “So if you set a law to filter information and keywords, does that mean it violates the principle of the Constitution?”