Google’s defeat foretells the day when Beijing rules the world

The blunt truth is that most Western forecasters have been wrong about China for the past 30 years. They have claimed that Chinese economic growth was exaggerated, that a big crisis was imminent, that state controls would fade away, and that exposure to global media, notably the Internet, would steadily undermine the Communist Party’s authority. The reason why China forecasting has such a poor track record is that Westerners constantly invoke the model and experience of the West to explain China, and it is a false prophet. Until we start trying to understand China on its own terms, rather than as a Western-style nation in the making, we will continue to get it wrong.

The Google affair tells us much about what China is and what it will be like. The Internet has been seen in the West as the quintessential expression of the free exchange of ideas and information, untrammeled by government interference and increasingly global in reach. But the Chinese government has shown that the Internet can be successfully filtered and controlled. Google’s mission, “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” has clashed with the age-old presumption of Chinese rulers of the need and responsibility to control. In this battle, there will be only one winner: China. Google will be obliged either to accept Chinese regulations or exit the world’s largest Internet market, with serious consequences for its long-term global ambitions. This is a metaphor for our times: America’s most dynamic company cannot take on the Chinese government—even on an issue like free and open information—and win.

Moreover, as China becomes increasingly important as a market and player, what happens to the Internet in China will have profound consequences for the Internet globally. It is already clear that the Google model of a free and open Internet, an exemplar of the American idea of the future, cannot and will not prevail. China’s Internet will continue to be policed and controlled, information filtered, sites prohibited, noncompliant search engines excluded, and sensitive search words disallowed. And where China goes, others, also informed by different values, are already and will follow. The Internet, far from being a great big unified global space, will be fragmented and segmented. Another Western shibboleth about the future will thereby fall. It will not signal the end of the free flow of information—notwithstanding all the controls, the Internet has transformed the volume and quality of information available to Chinese citizens—but it will take place more on Chinese than Western terms.

If we want to understand the future, we need to go back to the drawing board. China—as we can see with increasing clarity—is destined to become the world’s largest economy and is likely in time to far outdistance the U.S. This process will remorselessly shift the balance of power in China’s favor. Just as once a large share of the American market was a precondition for a firm being a major global player, this mantle will increasingly be assumed instead by the Chinese market, except to a far greater extent because its population is four times the size. Furthermore, China’s expanding economic clout means that its government is enjoying rapidly growing global authority. It can even take on Google and be sure of victory.

Facing up to the fact that China is very different from the West, that it simply does not work or think like us, is proving far more difficult. A classic illustration is the West’s failure to understand the strength and durability of the Chinese state, which defies all predictions of its demise, remains omnipresent in Chinese lives, still owns most major firms, and proves remarkably adept at finding new ways to counter the influence of the U.S. global media. Western observers typically explain the intrusiveness of the Chinese government in terms of paranoia—and in a huge and diverse country the rulers have always seen instability as an ever-present danger—but there is a deeper reason why the state enjoys such a high-profile role in Chinese society.

It is seen by the Chinese not as an alien presence to be constantly pruned back, as in the West, especially the U.S., but as the embodiment and guardian of society. Rather than alien, it is seen as an intimate, in the manner of the head of the household. It might seem an extraordinary proposition, but the Chinese state enjoys a remarkable legitimacy among its people, greater than in Western societies. And the reason lies deep in China’s history. China may call itself a nation-state (although only for the past century), but in essence it is a civilization-state dating back at least two millennia. Maintaining the unity of Chinese civilization is regarded as the most important political priority and seen as the sacred task of the state, hence its unique role: there is no Western parallel.

Chinese modernity will not resemble Western modernity, and a world dominated by China will not resemble our own. One consequence is already apparent in the developing world: the state is back in fashion; the Washington Consensus has been eclipsed. In this new world, Chinese ways of thinking—from Confucian values and their notion of the state to the family and parenting—will become increasingly influential. Google’s fate is a sign of the world to come, and the sooner we come to appreciate the nature of a world run by China, the better we will be able to deal with it.