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In the mid 1990s, as a grad student, I went to do my fieldwork in Shanghai and Beijing ready to ask the wrong questions. At the time, sinology was heavily influenced by questions of civil society and how it might emerge in China. I was sure that new technology startups (called minying keji qiye, or non-governmental technology enterprises) could be a significant source of opposition to the Chinese Communist Party and the state. During the Tiananmen protests, some prominent technology entrepreneurs had played important roles. Wan Runnan, founder of Stone Computer, was forced to flee China after he provided tactical advice, logistics, money and cell phones to the students. Stone had an internal think tank that had sponsored a conference on constitutional reform, and, despite having been favored by the Beijing government as a model of local innovation, a rectification team purged the company of liberal influences. The remaining managers made a public self-criticism in July 1989.
During my first set of interviews, I essentially asked managers and founders of tech companies how their interests differed from the governments and what they planned on doing about it, though I am sure I had framed the question less obtusely. The interviewees looked at me as if I had lost my mind. They did not see the government as an opponent. They wanted the government’s attention because they needed access to capital, technology, and talent. The challenge was to find the right type of government support, what people called being a good mother in law (hao po po). A local government that acted like a good mother in law was always on the search for opportunities for new companies and provided loans and other support, but did not interfere with the relations between husband and wife—in the internal workings of the company. The focus of my dissertation (and first book) shifted from state-society relations to industrial policy.
Last week’s reporting on the Great Cannon raised the question of the autonomy of Chinese technology and Internet companies again. Uncovered by researchers at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto and International Computer Science Institute at the University of Berkeley, the Great Cannon hijacks traffic and directs it at GreatFire.org, a site that runs mirrors of other sites blocked in China, and GitHub, a software coding site that was also hosting content Beijing found objectionable. In particular, the cannon orchestrates these attacks by injecting malicious scripts into connections to Baidu, the Chinese search giant.
If the Chinese government is behind the attacks, and there is every reason to believe that it is, then the Great Cannon is a notable instance of Beijing extending censorship and its conception of cyber sovereignty on to the global Internet. The authors of the report also argue that the use of Baidu in the attacks is evidence “that the Chinese authorities are willing to pursue domestic stability and security aims at the expense of other goals, including fostering economic growth in the tech sector.” In addition, exploiting Baidu undermines Beijing’s stated goal of helping Internet companies increase their presence in international markets.
Huawei, Xioami, and other Chinese technology companies have encountered issues of trust as they have entered foreign markets, due to questions of use of data and relations with the Chinese government. It appears as if the Great Cannon exploited Baidu without the company’s knowledge (and Baidu has denied involvement in the attacks), but Baidu’s reputation could easily suffer. This dynamic will be familiar to Silicon Valley, which has faced increased scrutiny in Europe and other markets because of NSA programs that exploited the infrastructure of Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and other Internet companies.
There must be some interesting discussion within Chinese technology companies these days. Twenty years ago it was too early to ask companies if they could see some conflict between their and the government’s interests. Once companies have customers in multiple international markets they may tend to identify themselves as less Chinese and more as global firms. This has been the history of U.S. and European tech companies. The definition of a good mother in law may be expanding to include: "don’t interfere with the integrity of our data services."