The news that Google threatened China to cease operations and search result censorship in the country due to the possible hacking of email accounts by the Chinese government belonging comes as no surprise. China has a long history of censorship, and for a while now, certain Google searches have returned blank results. Back in March, YouTube and Facebook were banned. Possibly China’s sole source of true investigative reporting was Caijing, the financial newspaper, but back in November its founding editor, Hu Shuli, resigned along with other senior staff. The reported reason for Hu’s resignation is that she was offered a tenured position at Zhongshuan University, but questions remain as to whether she has simply been sidelined by a government growing increasingly nervous over her reporting.
So, again, no surprise that Google is censored, and has been since Google.cn was started. But what is surprising is that in recent months, China has been taking steps to incorporate media literacy into its educational institutions. In November, days after Hu’s resignation, British, Japanese and Chinese scholars gathered in Beijing and formulated an action plan to incorporate media literacy with existing primary school curricula. The forum itself was organized by the University of China. Just three days ago, Li Xiguang was announced as the head of a new journalism academy in Chongqing; Li also happens to be known for his recommendations to the Chinese government for increased transparency, and his Tsinghua International Center for Communication (TICC) is the designated as the training base for government spokespersons. He also plans to bring his existing media literacy course from TICC over to the new academy.
Given these steps, it will be especially disappointing if China wants to continue censoring Google results and hacking Gmail with zeal, prompting Google to remove itself entirely from the country. A decision to stop censoring Google (and YouTube, and other sites) would fly in the face of China’s deep-seated policy towards free speech, but do the people of China really believe media literacy is possible without the embrace of an open Internet? Obviously, Google and YouTube were still being censored during the forum in Beijing and when the announcement was made about Li Xiguang; perhaps the hope that this was a herald of change in Chinese media policy was sheer naivete. News literacy is an essential component of media literacy, and without it, progress seems unlikely.
Every blank screen that shows up after a search for “Dalai Lama” is like a light bulb reminding the Chinese people who is in control (though, I’m sure if you ask them, it is not easily forgotten). In Northern Ireland at the height of The Troubles, television screens went blank when the station was not allowed to broadcast a documentary about alleged prisoner abuse in Belfast. This was done in favor of running a comedy program; everyone who tried to watch at that time was alerted to the fact that something was being kept from them. During political unrest in Fiji last summer, the Sunday edition of the Fiji Times was published blank, except for a statement announcing that content had been censored.
The power of blank can be great, and surely Google knows that. I don’t blame them for perceiving their Chinese operations as a waste of time and money if they will continue to be censored and have their systems hacked by the government, and I would be very surprised if they do not carry out their threat to leave. It won’t be long before the people of China are left without even a blank from Google, and the dream of media literacy slips further away.