Understanding America: “Sticking it to the Man!”

There is a current within the recent debate over Google and China that many Chinese observers are overlooking.  Both Michael and I feel agree that the reaction to Google’s opposition to Chinese censorship rules and the company’s threat to withdraw entirely from the China market are misunderstood.  It is easy to take this one dispute and examine it in a vacuum.  By itself, this controversy can be seen as a human rights issue/information imperialism/a Google business failure/control over the internet and the list goes on and on.  While those are all valid filters to explore this issue, none of them adequately explain the overwhelming public support that Google is receiving in the United States for its decision to challenge the central government.  Americans are rallying behind Google in this dispute because we, as a culture, as a people love to challenge authority:

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“Sticking it to the man” is an expression used in the United States when the underdog challenges authority. What so many Chinese observers misunderstand is that the widespread support of Google can largely be separated from the ongoing dispute with China.  Instead, it’s an impulsive reaction against authority.  We do it to ourselves just as much as we do it to others so contrary to popular opinion across much of China’s often nationalistic blogosphere this dispute in the eyes of most Americans has little to with China persay.   It is a concept deeply rooted in American history and critical to understand many disputes where Americans perceive that a major power (either a government, company or individual) is bullying a vulnerable constituent.

Consider the following examples:

  • The black civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King who challenged the government to change its laws about segregation in the 1960s.  In this case, the white-American government was “The Man” and Dr. King represented the “little guy” who led the rebellion on behalf of millions of powerless African Americans.  Dr. King was “sticking it to the man” in his fight for justice.
  • The open source software movement’s battle against Microsoft highlights how this insurgent attitude extends beyond politics into the business world.  In this case, Microsoft is “The Man” who possesses a monopoly market share in the software sector that goes to great lengths to stifle innovative competitors that distribute rival applications free of charge.  Linux, Mozilla and even Google to some extent are all consider underdogs compared to the mighty Microsoft.

So in the context of how Americans perceive power relationships, we will frequently side with whichever party is perceived to be weaker.  Ironically, Google is frequently considered the more powerful side in most disputes but in this case it is out matched by the Chinese government.  Americans rally behind the underdog and that goes a long way in explaining the reaction to the dispute between Chinese authorities and the search engine giant.  Yes, there are a myriad of factors to be considered in this discussion however it is our firm belief that Chinese observers need to understand this critically important American cultural trait if they are to fully comprehend the scope of this dispute.

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