HONG KONG—As Google's threatened withdrawal from China over censorship and cyber-attacks sparks huge public controversy in China, the results of a new survey reveal a huge majority of Chinese city-dwellers want greater Web freedom.
Two-thirds of the Chinese public, or 66 percent of respondents, said that they “should have the right to read whatever is on the Internet” when asked in January 2008 by WorldPublicOpinion.org, which published an updated version of the poll last week.
Only 21 percent said they agreed with the statement that "the government should have the right to prevent people from having access to some things on the Internet," the pollster said, ahead of a speech by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in which she was expected to call for global Internet freedom.
According to the survey, which asked around 1,000 urban Chinese residents by telephone a series of questions about media freedom last year, more respondents favored a freer Internet than did respondents in many of the other 21 countries polled, including Britain, France, Russia, and India.
The survey concluded that the Chinese urban public have "a realistic and critical view of their government’s control of the media," with only 12 percent of respondents saying that the media in China have a lot of freedom, the second lowest number among the 21 countries polled.
"The Chinese themselves give their country low marks on media freedom, and world opinion gives China similar poor grades on human rights," the pollster said.
Google has thrown its future in China into question pending discussions with officials over censorship requirements for its Chinese search engine and an investigation into hacker attacks it said originated in China in December.
Google said recently it had been hit by a "sophisticated" cyber-attack on its network that resulted in theft of its intellectual property.
Eighty-five percent of those polled said it is important to have freedom of the media, while 71 percent said they think people should have the right to read anything online.
However, 42 percent agreed with the idea that the government should have the right to curb news outlets to preserve social stability. And 53 percent said the media should be free of any government control whatsoever.
Just over half of Chinese polled said they think their media have "some" freedom, though only 12 percent said it they have "a lot."
Reaction to Google's threat of departure has varied among Chinese netizens, with some citing a copyright dispute between Chinese authors and Google Books, and others saying that foreign companies who do business in China should not expect special treatment.
Some bloggers highlighted the loss of several major overseas Web services in recent years, however, with some lashing out at growing restrictions on what Chinese people can see online.
Call for circumvention
Celebrity blogger and racing driver Han Han said he appreciates Google's contribution to China's Internet.
"Of course I think it's a pity," Han said. "First Facebook, then YouTube, and now Google are gone. All the best overseas Web sites have left us now."
He called on the Chinese people to continue to develop technology to access the Internet outside China, finding ways to get around the sophisticated system of blocks and filters known collectively as the "Great Firewall," or GFW.
"We should try to improve that, because there are so many young people in the media now, and the tide of history is in favor of more open media with a greater variety of voices."
Blogger Yuan Xiaoshuai said he can understand Google's point of view.
"Google has been under a lot of restrictions in the last five years, and if it leaves China, this probably won't affect its future development very much," Yuan said.
"In fact, if they stayed in China, it would probably influence their reputation."
Ties may be strained
The furor over Google may put a strain on diplomotic relations between Beijing and the Obama administration after a cordial beginning with Obama's November state visit to China, analysts said.
The U.S. State Department has said it will ask for an official explanation of the cyber-attacks.
Washington has long been worried about Beijing's cyber-spying program.
A congressional advisory panel said in November the Chinese government appears increasingly to be penetrating U.S. computers to gather useful data for its military.
The malware used in the Google attack was a modification of a trojan called Hydraq, according to security analysts.
A trojan is malware that, once inside a computer, allows someone unauthorized access.
The sophistication in the attack was in knowing whom to attack, and not in the malware itself, the analysts said.
Most of the filters on google.cn were still in place this week, though controls over some searches, including searches regarding the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, appear to have been loosened.
But Google's market share in China is less than one third, with the rest commanded by Chinese search engine Baidu.
Original reporting in Cantonese by Hai Nan and in Mandarin by Xin Yu. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.