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Geeks On A Plane Behind A Firewall

From the blog posts and photos coming out of China, it looks like everyone on the Geeks on a Plane trip to China is having a great time. Friend + GOAP organizer Dave McClure, along with few others, even got to meet Secretary Clinton who happened to be visiting Shagahi at the same time:

However, some of the email conversations I’ve been on with members of delegation have included their surprise at the sites that they are unable to access due to the censorship of Internet connectivity there (aka the Great Firewall of China).

Apparently Twitter, Facebook, email posting to Posterous and even Louis Gray’s blog are blocked. But don’t worry, Scoble’s isn’t anymore.

Joking aside, many worthwhile and important sites, such as BBC News (disclosure: I am a former long-term employee) remain blocked and unavailable to the population of China.

It is for this reason that I personally would have been uncomfortable about visiting China in a business capacity, and certainly on a high-profile organized industry trip like GOAP (which I was invited to attend but turned down for other reasons).

As it happens, I’ve visited China, but simply for leisure to ‘see for myself’, especially to explore the nature of the censorship, regime and the way of life there.

This is not an attack on my friend Dave and I support the increase of industry ties with other countries.

However I hope that the GOAP trip of Internet entrepreneurs is not perceived to be a legitimization or acceptance of the regime’s censored internet access. Nor should we forget the still recent attacks on Google and other western-operated internet assets that appear to be state-sponsored. It is also worth remembering that China does not welcome foreign companies and startups to operate out of China without domestic co-ownership.

At a time when Google is clearing out its offices in China and refusing to cooperate with China’s censorship demands, the lack of any acknowledgment (and perhaps even condemnation) of these issues by GOAP is definitely disappointing.

As I said, this is not an attack on Dave or anyone else attending. And I also understand that while they are physically in China it may not be the best time to express these opinions.

But before the chapter is closed on the GOAP:China expedition, I certainly hope that some recognition of these issues are made – perhaps even some suggestions on what we can all do, as Internet entrepreneurs and professionals, to place pressure for change. For freedom from censorship, freedom from attack and freedom to operate a wholly-owned entity in the local market.

Published in Thoughts and Rants


  1. I have to respectfully disagree with this. Grandstanding and condemning the Chinese on this is counterproductive and would not accomplish anything other than to make us feel better about ourselves for having stood up. Look, China has come a *long* way from where it was 10, or even 5 years ago. It is way more open than it’s ever been. While I believe in freedom of speech, we have to stop the “we will shout it loudly and frequently” style of diplomacy. When has progress ever been made by saying “I’m right, you’re wrong, you should change?” It has to begin with understanding. And that’s what Dave’s tour is. If you’ve ever spent quality time here, you’d realize that for the most part people honestly don’t give a crap about the censored internet. It’s not like when they get free access to the internet, they’re going to google and looking up “Tiananmen” etc. The best way to understand how China views the world is probably to look at how Apple views the world – they want tight control, believe that it is more important to deliver the optimal solution to the masses, even at the expense of a few. As Jobs said, if you want porn, go get an android device. China says if you want porn and open internet, go to America. Not saying I agree, but the results for both Apple and China have been very positive recently. Will it last? I don’t know. But I do know that simply telling them they’re wrong, talking down to them, telling them how we’re right and they’re wrong at every opportunity we have will not create change, it will only create resentment.

    I wrote a post a while back about this topic:

  2. Also, to clarify, a foreign company can absolutely establish operations in China without a domestic partner. It’s known as a Wholly Foreign Owned Enterprise:

  3. Ben Metcalfe Ben Metcalfe

    Hi Mike

    I think comparing the state of freedom in China is to a situation similar to Steve Job’s closed view of the world is, well, shocking.

    “As Jobs said, if you want porn, go get an android device. China says if you want porn and open internet, go to America.”

    Wow. The difference your analagy misses is that an iPhone owner is free to ditch his/her device and go buy that Android phone if that is what they want. Your everyday Chinese citizen cannot just ‘go to America’ as you suggest.

    And the results for Steve Jobs on their current policy is anything but positive. People are getting pissed off. The difference between Apple and China is that people have the right to say they are pissed off and of course they can put their money elsewhere. You can’t do that in terms of being a Chinese citizen.

    When has progress ever been made by saying “I’m right, you’re wrong, you should change?”

    Um, loads of times. This is usually what “putting pressure on X govenment for reform/change” is about. There are many examples throughout the world where this has happened. South Africa on apartheid, Russia on communism, Pakistan on supporting terrorism and radical islam.

    “you’d realize that for the most part people honestly don’t give a crap about the censored internet”

    Well my own experience is that there are three types of people who would disagree with this. There are the most poorest people who don’t have access to any internet but also don’t really know that their world is being censored at all.

    Then there is the uber-geek who understands what is going on but by-passes the censors using proxies, SSH etc.

    Then there is the average person who is frustrated by the censorship but is afraid to speak out as they will only face problems from doing so.

    None of those groups could be considered as “not giving a crap” and I base my experience both on visiting China and also spending time at the BBC News websites where we tried to work with people in China who wanted access to our site but couldn’t.

    “But I do know that simply telling them they’re wrong, talking down to them, telling them how we’re right and they’re wrong at every opportunity we have will not create change, it will only create resentment.”

    Depends on who you you mean by “them”. I’m not referring to average citizens. My criticism and “talking down” is squared solely at the Chinese authorities. Not the people who have little opportunity to change things.

  4. Hi Ben,

    You’re mainly arguing right or wrong (which for the most part I think we’re in agreement on) but you’re missing my point (or perhaps I’m doing a poor job of making it).

    First, I make the Apple analogy not to justify, but to explain the thought process. In China, the government feels that it should prioritize what it feels is best for its citizens. Like a parent does for their child. They optimize for maximum utility. So they are able to kick people out of farmland that their family has owned for generations to build business zones to spur economic growth. Are the farmers’ rights totally screwed? 100%. Overall, has it allowed faster growth in the country? 100%. Is it worth the sacrifice? Depends on who you talk to. My point is, we’re always so damn busy telling people they’re wrong, and not first starting with why they may do the things they do (and being evil and oppressive is not the reason, at least not in China). Once you have a better understanding of *why* someone behaves a certain way, then you’ll stand a much better chance of influencing it. This works in marriage and global politics, we’re all people, after all, and we like to be heard. Steve Jobs has a reason to do things the way he does, and a lot of people like it. Likewise, the Chinese gov’t does things the way it does, and whether its because of it, or in spite of it, has experienced tremendous growth, and people like that. From China’s perspective (not mine), they think what they’re doing is right, that they’re protecting their people, and when they look at the US, they see a free internet that has porn, beastiality, white supremacists, and thinks, “thanks but no thanks”. As you read through that, you’re probably thinking, “yeah but…ok but…”, but remember that my point is to educate on the thought process of the Chinese gov’t, not condone.

    So, if you are interested in being recognized as morally correct, then yes, shout at the top of your lungs that China needs to own up to its offenses. But if you’re interested in getting results, then I think the situation is more complicated. Clearly, the Chinese gov’t is pretty immune to pressure. They rolled tanks over students, they closed factories throughout the Beijing area to clean the skies for the Olympics, they let Google walk out without so much as batting an eye, oh, and the US owes them $18 bazillion dollars. So, I hardly think a bunch of geeks on a plane are going to make them quiver in their boots (as intimidating a person as DMC is in his Twilio jacket ;). Look, 20 years ago if you came to China it would be impossible to imagine the virtually capitalistic environment of today would ever be possible in China. But the government saw that it was an opportunity, and if it opened up its policies, it could experience tremendous growth and prosperity. This led to change. Likewise, there’s a far greater chance of creating understanding if we engage (which is what Geeks on a Plane is about) rather than combat. And honestly, it’s not like Western law and government are well oiled, problem free systems either. But we loooove telling people how right we are, and how wrong they are, and how awesome we are. How would you feel about China yelling at the US or UK about government corruption, environmental hazards, California’s abysmal financial situation, messed up healthcare systems or any other of the myriad of issues we face? How would you feel if a group of Chinese entrepreneurs came to Silicon Valley and challenged the US to come up with a solution to better filter the porn or hate on the internet to protect the youth of America? China doesn’t have a perfect system at all, but we’ve never had a monopoly on good ideas either.

    My (long winded) point is, I think we’re generally in agreement on the moral issue, but completely disagree on approach. We could all work towards a better solution if we took a minute to understand before we condemn, and we’d be far more likely to arrive at a workable solution if we did that.

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