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Distinction and difference

Robert Cyran 

Google/China: Google's China deal showcases ceremonial substance. The Internet giant's renewed Middle Kingdom access doesn't change much from earlier this year, when censorship issues flared. Searchers will still be sent to a less censored site, and Google could easily be shut down if the country senses a ceding of control. But when it comes to China, it's not the contract that matters so much as the symbolism.

To receive approval, Google took a figurative bow in the form of an extra click. Previously, users were automatically sent to the Hong Kong site, which doesn't have the same sensitivity filters. Mainland users now land on a simple Google page, with a non-functioning search box. Clicking it re-directs to the Hong Kong site. Both sides can claim victory and back down from their confrontation.

This sort of protocol is common. Most recently, it's reminiscent of China's promise to be more flexible in managing its currency's value. This generated plenty of press - and little movement in the yuan. Again, form trumped function.

The practical, legal lens through which Westerners often look can prove myopic. The Chinese yuan move paved the way for the US Treasury to state the country is not a currency manipulator, thereby permitting the massive integration of the mainland economy and the world to continue, however slowly.

The Google license does much the same. It means Google will be able to offer China's citizens a slightly more open window on the outside world. The People's Republic won't modernize overnight. And, nations rarely appreciate overseas efforts at "improvement." But such agreements signify that China is willing to move more in step intellectually and economically with developed nations - as long as it can control the pace.

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First Published: Mon, July 12 2010. 00:16 IST