Shadow Government

Google's noble withdrawal

One year ago, who could have imagined that the most significant international gesture of the year on behalf of freedom in China would come not from the United Nations, the United States, or another government, but from an internet search company? Such was Google's principled decision this week to follow through on its earlier threat and withdraw from China rather than acquiesce in continued Chinese government control. Beijing reacted with predictable bluster, but I suspect the Politburo leaders were stunned when Google called their bluff and chose to lose access to the most potentially lucrative emerging market in the world rather than keep censoring itself. Google's concern was not just China's restrictions on its search results but, more ominously as my FP colleague Blake Hounshell highlighted, the co-opting of Google technology to use in surveillance and entrapment of political dissidents (not to mention from a commercial standpoint the potential theft of sensitive intellectual property). No longer was Google just complicit in restricted information flow; it was now potentially a new tool for the persecution of Chinese activists.

This recalls another recent landmark moment in the turbulent encounter between Chinese state capitalism and Western technology companies, but with a less happy outcome. The Chinese Government's overconfident posture towards Google likely drew inspiration from Yahoo's shameful capitulation to the Public Security Bureau in 2004 by turning over Chinese dissident Shi Tao, whose only "crime" was using his Yahoo email account to communicate with overseas Chinese democracy activists.  Shi Tao is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence.

Yahoo publicly admitted its role in late 2005. I was working at the National Security Council at the time, and shortly after Shi Tao's arrest, some NSC colleagues and I met with a senior Yahoo executive to get their side of the story. It was a thoroughly disillusioning meeting. The Yahoo exec maintained a defiant, defensive posture, clinging to the talking points that Yahoo was just following the local laws in the country it was working in, couldn't get involved in a "political case" like this, and besides didn't U.S. Government policy encourage economic engagement with China? To which we reminded him that U.S. policy also encouraged human rights and free speech in China, which Yahoo's actions directly undermined. Perhaps even more distressing was that the Yahoo exec made clear that his company felt no obligation, even in private, to remonstrate with the Chinese authorities over the arrest or to do anything to assist Shi Tao or his family. It was not an auspicious moment for the argument that Western technology companies will inevitably bring freedom to China. Following months of bad publicity and Congressional pressure, Yahoo eventually reversed course and expressed remorse.

In contrast, this fascinating Wall Street Journal article describes Google co-founder Sergey Brin's instrumental role in Google's decision, drawing on his childhood memories of totalitarian control in the Soviet Union. Now today's China, of burgeoning state capitalism that is communist in name only, is overall so dissimilar to the erstwhile USSR that the comparison is for good reason hardly even conceivable. But that is precisely why the few similarities - such as autocratic one-party rule, or pervasive surveillance, or intolerance of dissent - are so jarring yet so revealing. Brin saw what so many other Westerners either cannot or will not see: that in his words "in some aspects of [China's] policy, particularly with respect to censorship, with respect to surveillance of dissidents, I see the same earmarks of totalitarianism."  

So now Google is doing its part, but what about the U.S. Government and other free governments around the world? As my Legatum Institute colleague Jean Geran has argued, the Obama Administration's elusive democratization agenda needs to put internet freedom issues on the front burner. Fortunately Secretary Clinton's January speech was a strong step in that direction. And CNAS's Richard Fontaine this week articulated some important new policy steps that need to be taken to help ensure that the internet continues to be a force for liberty rather than a tool of oppression.

Finally, Google's decision marks an important data point in the ongoing debate over the connection between economic liberty and political liberty, and even the direction of history. One often hears the contention that growing economic freedom -- and with it growing prosperity -- will lead inevitably towards greater political freedom. And there is much evidence, from history and political science, that in many countries this can often be the case. But the Chinese Government and its "Beijing Consensus" of economic growth and one-party control, is determined to resist this pattern. And as Google has shown, these trends depend often as much on the specific decisions by commercial actors to put long-term principle over short-term incremental gains in market access - especially if that access depends on government control rather than free market merit.  So this decision by Google is actually a strong act to promote more genuinely free markets in China. Which over time will also prove to be the most profitable.

li xin/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Has Obama lost his silver tongue?

A recent CNN poll shows President Obama breaking an inauspicious barrier: a slim majority of 51 percent now disapprove of his job performance while only 46 percent approve of it. President Bush reached a similar level briefly in 2004, recovered in time for the 2004 election, and then crossed the barrier once and for all early in the second term (see here and here). Obama is barely a quarter of the way through his first term and so there is plenty of time for his numbers to improve. Indeed, since the CNN poll closed before Obama won his historic healthcare vote, it may be skewed negatively and his numbers may have already bounced back up a bit.

What interests me about this poll, however, is not the overall number, but rather that for the most part President Obama scores the lowest on the issues he has made centermost and about which he has talked the most:

  • Health Care: 40 percent approve and 58 percent disapprove
  • The economy: 43 percent approve and 54 percent disapprove
  • Unemployment: 45 percent approve and 53 percent disapprove
  • The federal budget deficit: 36 percent approve and 62 percent disapprove

And he scores the highest on the issues that he talks about the least:

  • The situation in Afghanistan: 55 percent approve and 42 percent disapprove
  • Terrorism: 53 percent approve and 45 percent disapprove
  • The situation in Iraq: 51 percent approve and 46 percent disapprove

[The outliers from this pattern are environmental policy (55 percent approve, 37 percent disapprove) and perhaps education (56 percent approve and 41 percent disapprove).]

This pattern of comparatively low scores for the handling of signature domestic policy priorities and higher scores for the handling of foreign policy may be due to several factors. Perhaps the public just disapproves of Obama's health and economic policies and approves of the national security policies. Or perhaps the public approves of the way Obama has pursued more of a bipartisan policy on national security than he has on health care, which passed on a pure partisan basis. Note that the Republicans, who were quite loud in shouting "No" on Obamacare have been the loudest "Yes" voices on Afghanistan. Perhaps the low numbers are just the direct result of all of the partisan shouting. Or perhaps Obama's numbers on domestic policy are contaminated by the public's total disdain for Congress, which has approval numbers in the low teens. Perhaps the public and the media have been so focused on health care that neither has not paid much attention to the wars and if they did they might not like what they see there. Perhaps the president is still benefiting from a commander-in-chief halo.  

If I were in the White House, however, I would be concerned about yet another possible explanation: perhaps the more the president talks about an issue the more he drives his own numbers on that issue down. I would worry about that because as a national security policy person, I do not want the president's political advisors to have a perverse incentive to avoid talking about the war. There are other costs, not directly measured in public opinion polls, when a president avoids the national security issue.  

Among those costs is the one highlighted by Peter Baker in his account of how health care was crowding out national security: the avoidance of the topic might raise doubts in the minds of the allies about America's resolve, a toxic doubt when they themselves are itching for an exit.  

Another cost is raising doubts in the minds of the military, a key audience for presidential rhetoric. The U.S. military have internalized a lesson of warfare since the days of Vietnam: when political leaders shirk their responsibility to mobilize and sustain public support for their wars ultimately it is the military who suffer. Therefore, the military want their commander-in-chief to demonstrate that he is as committed to the fight as they are, and one way the president can do that is by regularly explaining his war policies to the general public.

President Obama demonstrated his own commitment to Afghanistan by investing so much time in the fall to the Afghan Strategy Review 2.0 and by rebuffing his left-wing base by backing General McChrystal's surge. His commitment to Iraq seems more ambivalent, but he does deserve credit for abandoning his more extreme campaign rhetoric and ratifying the gradual withdrawal advocated by Generals Petraeus and Odierno.

But I suspect that in the coming months that commitment will be tested by developments on the ground in both countries that cannot be ignored, not by the media, not by the public, and thus not by the president. It would be paradoxical and problematic for the Obama Team if they discovered that having the president speak to those issues seemed to undermine public support for them, at least on the margins.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images