The common western narrative is that China’s government is oppressive and fear that its citizens would discover freedom and democracy through those websites. On the social-economic level, they imply that China’s leadership lack confidence when dealing with the western world. The underlying message is that that those rich multi-billion corporations are somehow purveyor of freedom and democracy. Google even used “Don’t be evil” as its formal corporate motto.
However, the Snowden incident showed that the US government and many of its close allies have been spying on their users with approval from the highest management of Facebook, Twitter and Google etc. Of course, one can argue that those companies have no choice in the matter as the US and its close allies are among their biggest market. Allowing backdoor access to those government is simply following the law of those government.
Nevertheless when dealing with the government of China a different set of standard is used. The Chinese government requested the same level of access given to the US government while operating in China. A fair and not unreasonable request, isn’t it? But blinded by their own sense of self importance, those corporations refused to give Chinese government the same legal access. When the row came into the surface, hordes of western press simply trumpeted the same chorus of how the evil Chinese government want to “shut down” those websites in China. Despite that, the outcome is pretty predictable as China stopped allowing those companies direct access to its huge user base. Those websites are still accessible if one pay for a private VPN in China. The Chinese government has given signal that those corporation are welcome back if they extend the same courtesy they accorded the US government. In my opinion, it would happen one day but China’s internet is now dominated by its own homegrown multi-billion corporations so it is no longer so lucrative for them to go back.
It would be interesting to compare those incidents to the banning of the Confucian Institute in the west. The pretext used is that the Confucian Institute is the propaganda organ of the Chinese Communist Party as it is funded by the Chinese government. The Britain’s British Council, France’s Alliance Française and Germany’s Goethe-Institut were also funded by their respective government and championed the opinion of their respective governments. Why weren’t those institute banned? The biggest difference between the Confucian Institute and its counterpart is that the Chinese government prefer to cooperate with local institute of education. Unlike its counterparts which operate freely in any location, usually by leasing its own building and giving language and cultural classes, the Confucian Institute prefer to work with an education institute of the host country. In my view, the Chinese government is simply to try to show good will by having semi-official validation, and by working right under the noses of the local institutes, its classes and activities are an open book. However according to the detractors, “this has raised concerns over their influence on academic freedom, the possibility of industrial espionage, and concerns that the institutes present a selective and politicized view of China as a means of advancing the country’s soft power internationally.”
So basically the alleged crimes of the Confucian Institute have no legal basis and simply subject to narrow-minded interpretation by bigots. Much like how it is done in the Cultural revolution. However, the ball is still in the host countries’ courts as the teachers of the Confucian Institute still need legal permits before they can teach. Of course, it is the right of the host country to issue those permits to whoever it deemed acceptable. Nonetheless, when it is done selectively it raised the notion of selective prosecution and total lack of confidence.
Let’s be realistic, the so-called soft power is simply an extension of a country hard power. And like any competition it is prudent to occupy the high ground, in this case the moral high ground. However, moralizing an issue when one stands on clay feet is not very convincing, at least to the critical observers.