There are naturally a lot of alarming headlines today about the news from Beijing. The Chinese government, the Wall Street Journal reports, will require computer companies to ship PCs with censorship software starting July 1. The AP paraphrases the general manager of Jinhui Computer System Engineering, the company that makes the “Green Dam-Youth Escort” software, explaining the goal is to “target online porn by preventing computers from accessing sites with pornographic pictures or language.” However, surely the government censors who have worked for years to control China’s Internet could also take advantage of the new software to ban more effectively access to political websites covering taboo topics like Taiwanese independence, the Dalai Lama or Falun Gong.
Pretty alarming. But if earlier cases from China are any guide, this new regulation might disappear once companies yell loudly enough and convince policy makers that the proposal is impractical. Case in point: The government’s threat in 2006 to put YouTube-like video-sharing sites out of business by requiring them to have government ownership. Within weeks of the news breaking, the relevant ministries backed down. (See this Eye on Asia blog post I did at the time.) Before that, there was the case of WAPI, the controversial Made-in-China wireless standard that the government tried to force companies to adopt back in 2004. Intel and others shouted and the government backed down. Before that, there was a policy about encryption that also caused a stink. Like the Wifi policy, it was pushed by lower levels of the bureaucracy; only after the encryption policy became official did people higher up the food chain realize it wouldn’t work. Like the Wifi policy, the encryption policy soon died.
In other countries, policymakers learn what businesses think before a new regulation gets approved; for better or worse, that’s one reason there are so many lobbyists in Washington. Because China has so little transparency, though, companies like HP and Dell now find themselves smacked by a surprise new regulation covering the sale of PCs. Not having had the opportunity to provide input about the regulation earlier, they now have to scramble to lobby, after the fact. I know, the system of lobbying in Washington can lead to abuses like the Jack Abramoff scandal. But still, I think today’s PC news shows how inefficient the Chinese system can be.