What China’s Blocking of Gmail Has To Do With World War I

It is a matter of common knowledge, one which a man must be blind and deaf not to understand, that for many years Germany, intoxicated by her success in war and by her increase of wealth, has regarded the British Empire with eyes of jealousy and hatred,” wrote Arthur Conan Doyle in The German War, a political essay published in 1914, shortly after the beginning of World War I. He was already a world-known bestseller author thanks to his Sherlock Holmes stories, and he used the notoriety of his public persona in order to convince the British people that the war had been caused by Germany alone, and that it was a just war. The logic behind Doyle’s argument was that Germany, a newly industrialised and rich nation, was envious, ungrateful and embittered. Britain – so went Doyle’s reasoning – had helped Germany politically and economically, but had been met with ingratitude by her former ally. 

Until the twentieth century had turned [the Germans] had no possible cause for political hatred against us. In commerce our record was even more clear. Never in any way had we interfered with that great development of trade which has turned them from one of the poorest to one of the richest of European States. 

Our markets were open to them untaxed, whilst our own manufactures paid 20 per cent in Germany. The markets of India, of Egypt, and of every portion of the Empire which had no self-appointed tariff, were as open to German goods as to British ones. Nothing could possibly have been more generous than our commercial treatment. No doubt there was some grumbling when cheap imitations of our own goods were occasionally found to oust the originals from their markets. Such a feeling was but natural and human. 

But in all matters of commerce, as in all matters political before the dawn of this century, they have no shadow of a grievance against us … And yet they hated us with a most bitter hatred, a hatred which long antedates the days when we were compelled to take a definite stand against them. In all sorts of ways this hatred showed itself—in the diatribes of professors, in the pages of books, in the columns of the Press. Usually it was a sullen, silent dislike. Sometimes it would flame up suddenly into bitter utterance

And yet this bitter antagonism was in no way reciprocated in this country. If a poll had been taken at any time up to the end of the century as to which European country was our natural ally, the vote would have gone overwhelmingly for Germany. “America first and then Germany” would have been the verdict of nine men out of ten. But then occurred two events which steadied the easy-going Briton, and made him look more intently and with a more questioning gaze at his distant cousin over the water. Those two events were the Boer War and the building of the German fleet. The first showed us, to our amazement, the bitter desire which Germany had to do us some mischief, the second made us realise that she was forging a weapon with which that desire might be fulfilled.

One hundred years have elapsed since Arthur Conan Doyle wrote these words. Germany is now a peaceful, democratic country, and Western Europe has – for the time being, at least – cast aside the old national hatreds, territorial and maritime disputes. However, the dynamic of British-German conflict is not simply a forgotten chapter of history. It is a lesson, an important lesson that should be learnt. 

Apparently, the blocking of Gmail in the PRC has little to do with the events of 1914-1918. But, as Doyle’s text shows, they have one thing in common: the dynamic of Sino-American relations resembles very much that of British-German relations one hundred years ago. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, Germany was a “parvenu” which, within a few decades, had turned “from one of the poorest to one of the richest of European States“. Germany pursued a protectionist policy of industrialisation, often manufacturing “cheap imitations” of British goods, ‘self-strengthening’ and arming. Britain, on the other hand, was a declining superpower, but with naval and military presence all over the world, it was a country that had already fallen into the trap of liberalism, opening up her market to foreign competition in the name of the ‘free market’. The unsolved contradictions of this explosive situation led to a catastrophic war. In 1875 Britain imported only 8% of her steel. By 1913 she imported 45%, and most of it came from Germany. The interdependence of Britain’s and Germany’s economies not only did not prevent a war, but it had created a psychological rivalry that was exacerbated by the conflict. 

The parallels with Sino-American tensions are obvious. And the fate of Google is a symbol of the contradictions of this complex relation. 

In a recent editorial, China’s state-owned Global Times wrote: “Western media pointed the finger at Chinese authorities immediately, accusing them of strengthening its cyber censorship. This is far too simple a hypothesis. It should be noted that Google voluntarily quit the mainland market in 2010. The issue at heart is to what extent Google is willing to obey Chinese law, on which China’s attitude is steadfast … As is widely known, China has to keep strengthening its national security while it opens up to the West. We cannot avoid issues like Internet and ideological security when dealing with large IT companies from the West … If the China side indeed blocked Gmail, the decision must have been prompted by newly emerged security reasons. If that is the case, Gmail users need to accept the reality of Gmail being suspended in China. But we hope it is not the case. We only need to have faith that China has its own logic in terms of Internet policy and it is made and runs in accordance with the country’s fundamental interests.

This excerpt from the paper’s article only shows one thing: lack of transparency. Not even one of the biggest Communist newspapers knows if and why Gmail has been blocked in the PRC. That’s because legal accusations against Google have not been formalised. This contradicts the paper’s comparison with Google’s conflicts with other states such as the European Union. While it is true that Google has had legal problems in various countries, its services have never been arbitrarily suspended without notice and formal charges. 

The Global Times argues that we “need to have faith” in China’s logic, that “newly emerged security reasons” might have prompted Beijing to block Gmail, that Google has to “obey Chinese laws“, etc. These are very weak and vague arguments that provide no evidence but ask a leap of faith, as if the CCP was not a party but a god. 

Furthermore, laws made by a one-party dictatorship are not morally binding, especially if they force companies to practice censorship (which is the reason why Google quit mainland China in 2010 in the first place). Let us remember that the anti-Jewish laws in Nazi-Germany and the apartheid in South Africa were also “legal”. But there is no rule of law if the law is made by one party, one king or one “race”, without public scrutiny, free discussion and the possibility to change the law. 

However, I am not arguing that Google has the right to disregard Chinese laws. The PRC is a sovereign state, and its government is responsible for legislation. No foreign company or individual should or can interfere.

But here, once again, we have the same contradiction that existed in 1914. On the one hand, a partly liberal economy offering to foreign companies access to its own market, in the belief that markets are self-regulating; on the other hand, a neomercantilist, protectionist country that tightly regulates its domestic market but seeks to have unlimited access to foreign markets. This is, in my opinion, the real cause of World War I. And it is the major cause of Sino-American tensions. 

Google symbolises this contradiction. If the laws of the PRC force companies to practice self-censorship, there can be no free market. How can a company like Google, whose main purpose is to allow users to search content online, block results such as ‘Tiananmen 1989’ or ‘Taiwan independence’? Obviously, this is not just a political but also an economic question. Each company that deals with information is penalised and restricted in its basic function. 

It is no surprise that a Communist state enforces censorship. Google can’t change it. The problem is why the rest of the world is so eager to deregulate and open up to a Communist state, without any consideration for their own national interests, moral integrity and the prosperity of their own companies. While China’s legislators are obsessed with ‘national interest’, Western legislators are doing the exact opposite, causing problems that in the long-term will become explosive. Complaining doesn’t help. If you can’t do business with a country on equal and mutually beneficial terms, trade needs to be regulated.

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