Last week, Google finally made good on its vow to pull its search business out of China. The company announced that, henceforth, queries to its famed search engine made from mainland Chinese IP addresses would be routed through Google's Hong Kong site. It was a decision made after the company went public with complaints about surveillance and censorship in the People's Republic.
Is this a big story about the freedom of information in China? Sure. Chinese Web fans worry that Google's decision to leave the field to its homegrown rivals -- such as Baidu -- bodes ill for the future of the Chinese Internet. Without Google, the reasoning goes, Chinese cyberspace could well become more isolated and less competitive, a poor prospect for Chinese businesses and citizens.
But David Bandurski -- a researcher at the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project -- is worried about something else entirely. He says life is becoming harder for China's journalists, the ones who fill the Web with those stories in the first place. "The real issue isn't about a particular website or search engine," he says. "It is about the broader principle of public access to information."
Put bluntly: The climate for China's journalists is worsening, and it doesn't have anything to do with Google, or with the Chinese Communist Party's pretense to absolute ideological control of information. The problem is not that the party is scrubbing the Internet to remove stories it deems negative. The problem is the corrupt network between business and government, which places unwarranted pressure on journalists and editors. "It's no longer about abstract propaganda discipline," Bandurski says. "These days it's about specific money and power interests."
Case in point: In 2008, a newspaper called the China Business Post published a story that exposed malfeasance at the regional branch of one of China's biggest state banks. The bankers protested -- to powerful effect. One of their allies turned out to be a well-placed party chief who was tied to the businessmen through personal relationships. The next thing the journalists knew, the government had suspended the paper.
"The network of agencies devoted to media control in China, including the propaganda department, are now, more than ever before, mediators and players in a vast web of power and profit," Bandurski wrote in an analysis of the incident published in March 2009 in the Far Eastern Economic Review. "They no longer dish out just propaganda dictates; they dish out personal and professional favors too."