I’m sure everyone has by now heard of Google’s announcement that they may ‘leave the Chinese market’. Although it is not clear what is fully meant by this at this time, it is a situation which poses many ethical questions for all foreign-owned enterprises currently undertaking work in China or similar political contexts.
Google claims that their period of reflection is as a result of what they believe to be state-sponsored manipulation of their Googlemail application. This somewhat ignores the overwhelming animosity that the company received in the West prior to entering the market in early 2006. This was in response to the company’s apparent decision to comply with Chinese censorship legislation requiring it to hide search results from a variety of different subjects.
This is a dilemma that certain architectural sectors have had to deal with many times in the past. One may, possibly naively, assume that, as a liberal profession, the position of the architect may be not to engage with the dictator or the authoritarian regime, but I think we would be wrong. I am specifically reminded of Foster and Partners’ recent works in many questionable democracies on the central Asian steppes.
An interesting case in point is in fact the company I now work for, Ove Arup. The firm has been a market leader in Hong Kong for decades, but was also one of the first of the foreign practices to use this foundation to enter the mainland market. The first mainland office opened in 1984 in Shanghai and remained a lone outpost until quite recently. It was only upon China’s succession to the WTO in 2000 that the practice initiated a series of new openings along the eastern and southern seaboards. So, why the delay?
One could argue that this was because the country at this point received the international ‘seal of approval’ – a collective decision had been reached to work with the state, putting other pressing rights issues on the backburner. The Peoples’ Republic gained full legitimacy at this time – for the first time more countries recognised the PRC over the ROC as the ‘real’ China, Beijing was awarded the Olympics. I think it is actually more simple than this even. Although the morality of such a decision is ambiguous, the economics are not. China is too big a market to ignore and it was at this point that the scale of development became too large not to engage.
I heard recently an extremely interesting analysis by the eminent historian of political government Peter Hennessy on BBC Radio. In this piece he described the government here as a, “tyranny by any other name,” and took the stance that companies should never, “dicker around with tyrants, however important they are in the world.” Although I must say that this utopian and principled position is morally appealing it is not, as I have described, realistic in the world that we inhabit. It is the received opinion that liberal democracy won the cold war. This is clearly not true. Of the CIS states today, only those on the Baltic could be described as fully functioning democracies. And China has only continued to grow. Do we ignore these billions of people?
The common comparison, made by many wishing to disengage, with the economic blockade South African apartheid regime in the 1970s and 1980s is, in my opinion, both unfair and unhelpful. Any blockade would today be unilateral, many of these states are members of the WTO and active members of the international community. They cannot and will not be frozen out. We no longer live in a world dominated by the postwar allied powers and have, realistically, no choice, economically and politically, but to engage due their sheer power and influence. I believe the arts and architecture in particular, are therefore extremely relevant as ambassadors for change in these lands.
As a result of the political stability that many of these regimes provide (regardless that this may be to the detriment of civil rights), there is an opportunity for economic and civic development that will improve people’s lives. Architects are at the forefront of this change. They are a medium for the physical transformation of the world in which the citizens of these states live. One could therefore argue that they have a responsibility to be there, to enable change.
So. Should Google pull out? I’m not so sure. Maybe they should never have entered the market in the first place in order to comply with their mantra, ‘don’t be evil’. But they did, and they are now here. This changes the situation enormously in my opinion and loads upon them more responsibility due to their adopted role as a stakeholder in Chinese society. Maybe their responsibility is to stay? Maybe we should ask the shareholders…