Google may have unnecessarily provoked a fight with China, but the Middle Kingdom better keep its wits, lest it repeat a sad protectionist history.
Early last millennium China was the world's richest civilization and technology leader. It famously invented gunpowder, iron casting, paper, porcelain, printing, and gigantic nine-masted sailing vessels. Between 1405 and 1433, the great Muslim Chinese explorer Zheng He led seven expeditions in the South Pacific and Indian Oceans, reaching the coast of East Africa. China's naval fleet grew to 3,500 ships. But in the year 1500, the Ming emperor inexplicably outlawed boats with more than two masts and in 1525 ordered the destruction of the entire fleet. The Silk Road closed, and the nation turned inward. Four hundred fifty years of stagnation and poverty ensued.
For the past 30 years China has reconnected to the outside world. It embraced technology, trade, and the ultimate global link — the Internet. China did not measure up to Western ideals of free speech, but communications growth was explosive. China has more Internet users (384 million) and more than twice as many mobile phone subscribers (745 million) as the U.S. has people.
Even with China's tactical restrictions, the Web was irrepressible, working its way deep into Chinese culture and commerce. At first China largely adopted the Western Web. Before Google "entered" the Chinese market in 2006 by locating Chinese-language google.cn servers on Chinese soil, Chinese Web users could access Google's global google.com service, which earned a 13% market share. The google.cn service brought Mandarin characters and China-specific expertise to its searches. It was an improvement but still only boosted Google's total China market share to 20%, far behind leader Baidu.
Now, as China builds its own thriving Internet ecosystem and tangles with Google, other big changes are looming. New internationalized country-code domains will soon come online. This means instead of only Latin characters used in the traditional domains (.com, .org, .fr, .jp, .cn), the Internet will also use native language characters to define a new set of domains. So China gets the brand new .中国 (.china), which it can define and manage. Last week China took its second step toward this milestone when ICANN announced the successful "String Evaluation" of both the simplified and traditional Chinese character versions of .cn.
One of the Net's great advantages is that it obliterates distance, softens national boundaries, and lowers artificial barriers. The virtual world is more efficient and transparent than the physical world. Digital technologies are "technologies of freedom." But what if nations view the new native-language domains as sovereign territory to be protected? Are the new domain spaces additions and complements to the existing Net? Or are are they a replacement? Is .中国 a much-needed tool to bring ever more millions of Chinese onto the universal and open Internet? Or is it a wall to close the Googles out and its own people in?
China is nowhere near closing for business as it did five centuries ago. One doubts, however, that the Ming emperor knew he was dooming his people for the next couple hundred years, depriving them of the goods and ideas of the coming Industrial Revolution. China's present day leaders know this history. They know technology. They know turning away from global trade and communication would doom them far more surely than would an open Internet.
I've often warned Western politicians against our own self-defeating protectionist measures aimed at China. And we can sympathize with China's perhaps overly cautious approach to managing two simultaneous, epochal transformations — globalization and the Internet. These dramatic changes strain all of us but are especially traumatic for a nation that was stuck in the Middle Ages just a few decades ago. In the Google matter, I hope and suspect each side made its point and will now more forward. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't remind China of the destructive possibilities when any one party in this global system even toys with protectionism. Digital autarky would be like sinking your own fleet.
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