The cookie dropped yesterday. After weeks of suspense, the US government charged Huawei, a Chinese networking equipment manufacturer, with violating US sanctions and stealing trade secrets from its American partner. The specific charges apart, US officials have made no secret that the action has two broader dimensions — the ongoing trade war with China and the wider geopolitical contest for dominance in the Information Age.
On the other side of the drama, last week Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, suddenly became inaccessible to users in China. A day or so later, just as mysteriously, it was back online. Now, unlike Google — which once decided to stay out of the Chinese market rather than accept censorship of its search results — Microsoft has made its peace with Beijing and Bing only throws up sanitised, party-approved hits. It commands a tiny share of the Chinese internet search market. Why Beijing would want to turn off an almost insignificant search engine — and a pliant one at that — is hard to fathom; and even if the word has been put out that it was due to a ‘technical error‘ it is impossible to rule out political motives. Neither Microsoft nor the Chinese government have explained why Bing went down for a day.
For many years, companies and governments would roll their eyes after incidents like this and concede that ‘that is the cost of doing business in China.’ It is only now that it is dawning on many Western countries, mainly the United States, that censorship is a feature that China has introduced on the internet. Furthermore, China has now acquired enough economic, political and technological power to be able to shape the future of the internet in its own image, and according to its own interests. The Trump administration is waking up to this reality in alarm.