Nice piece over the weekend in the New York Times about the potential impact of a Google departure from China and the kind of debate the announcement made in China.
The following graf reminded me of debates and discussions I had with Chinese journalists, journalism students and businessmen while I lived in Shanghai and Hong Kong:
By publicly challenging China’s censorship, Google has stirred up the debate over the government’s claim that constraints on free speech are crucial to political stability and the prosperity that has accompanied it. Even if it is unlikely to pose any immediate threat to the Communist Party, Google’s move has clearly discomfited the government, Chinese analysts say.
One of the greatest fears many in China have is instability. Considering the history of the country, that fear is understandable.
The problem is that stability is threatened more by the lack of trusted information than by the control of information. Once the government — or any gateway for information — is proved to have lied or withheld vital information, gossip and rumors take on a more trusted place in society.
During the SARS outbreak almost 10 years ago, the Chinese government not only banned any discussion of this new and unknown disease, they actually jailed people for talking about it. So in the several months that SARS was running wild in southern China, visitors to that area did not know they were being infected with a new and deadly stain of flu. It was only after the free press of Hong Kong looked at what was happening that the rest of the world learned about SARS.
Thanks to the lies and repression of information from the Chinese government, Hong Kong was effectively closed for more than a month. That does not even take into consideration all the people who got sick and died as a result of the disease.
Rumors about this strange disease included one that the disease was the result of a joint experiment between the CIA and the Chinese secret police. And people in southern China believed that. After all, there was no other news about the disease from anyone. So why not have SARS be a lab experiment that got out of control.
What the Chinese government, and any force that seeks to restrict accurate reporting, fails to understand is that people will share information one way or another. Isn’t it more stabilizing to have a trusted impartial way to disseminate news? A system like a free and independent media?
The big issue is making sure we in the media maintain the trust of our readers, viewers and listeners. As I have told my students many times, “Trust is like virginity. Once you lose it, you can’t get it back.”