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Innovation

Google pits class against class in China

The Google battle with China may be exposing a growing class distinction within that country. Some people have the means and motivation to "scale the great firewall" of China, and China needs them to become a 21st century country.
Written by Dana Blankenhorn, Inactive on

Google's threat to pull out of China, which most Chinese seem to believe is in the process of coming true (and may already be in process)  has rights advocates cheering and American analysts like Tom Friedman betting on the Chinese government.

It may also be exposing a growing class distinction within the country. It's not financial, not necessarily educational. It's technical. (Picture from Rich's Web Design, which has a wonderful collection of Google holiday logos.)

That is, some people have the means and motivation to "scale the firewall" of China but most don't.

Means and motivation are connected. I spent some time in China last year and, I can practically guarantee, none of my hosts are interested in getting around the government's Internet restrictions.

It's partly patriotism, but it's mainly self-interest. A generation has risen in China which has things no Chinese before them ever had -- privacy, refrigerators, cars, leisure -- and this middle class wants to protect what they have.

But there's another China, best exemplified by a child I met there who called himself, proudly, "Four." This is in defiance of a popular superstition. The word for four sounds like the word for death. Many buildings there have no fourth floor, much as ours may lack a 13th.

Yet "Four" is not only tolerated, but indulged. He is part of the new generation, the so-called  "Little Emperors," products of a one child policy and growing wealth that leads naturally to the kind of spoiling I and my fellow baby boomers got in the 1950s.

We all know how that turned out.

But while America's baby boomers represented a "pig in the python" -- a demographic bulge still working its way through the system -- China's Little Emperors are fewer in number than their parents. By design.

In 10 years, in 20 years, these Little Emperors are going to be young adults. They won't be easily cowed. A new "Cultural Revolution" against such "bourgeoisie thought" is not in the cards, unless China wants to build a bridge from the 21st century back to the 13th.

Now imagine, if you will, that my young friend "Four" is among the best and brightest of this generation. He will have a questing mind, a deep knowledge of technology (he grew up with an Internet-connected PC in the living room), and little regard for the word "no."

As in, "no, you can't read that Web site." Or "no, you can't question your government."

There is already a class of such people in China. They may number just a few million, but China can't afford to do away with them. To take the next step in its evolution, to become a technology leader, China needs innovators, people who can think thoughts that have never been thought before.

It can't restrict such people in tight channels. The decision to let people think is binary. It's either allowed or it's not. When it comes to thought, which is at the heart of all technological progress, you take the bitter with the sweet.

China has, until now, dealt with this by exchanging freedom for loyalty. My hosts could breach the "great firewall" if they chose to. They are free to do that. But they are loyal, so they don't. They don't even imagine doing so.

"Four" won't be like that. He, and millions like him, are being depended upon to turn China from a nation of factories into one of offices and research parks.

This is the demographic wave aimed at the heart of the regime. It won't be turned away by turning off google.cn. If you want a thinking people, you must let people think.

China's leaders know this. It keeps them up at night. And Google knows it, too. That's what transforms what is happening now from a dispute to a crisis.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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