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Beyond Google, a bigger China story

My colleagues here have been weighing in on Google's "bombshell" revelation that China has been spying on dissidents and human rights activists, trying to crack open their Gmail accounts, presumably with the aim of monitoring and disrupting their activities. A lot of commentary is so far focused on the immediate issue at hand -- China's crushing censorship and Google's controversial policy of accomodating it in the hopes of gaining market share (see Jordan Calinoff's excellent dispatch on how this policy has largely failed). Of course, we already knew China did this sort of thing, but having the details so dramatically thrust into the public sphere is shocking. This is going to be a huge, ongoing story, not only because Google and China are two of the biggest and most widely debated news topics in the world, but also because nearly everyone's going to sympathize with the people whose privacy and peace of mind has been violated.

There's a larger story developing though, of a very tense year in relations between China and the West. Eurasia Group's Ian Bremmer made that prediction earlier this year, and it's probably happening even faster than he imagined. In addition to this Google story, which U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already jumped on, there's also a brewing U.S.-China fight over arms sales to Taiwan, China's recent missile test in retaliation, and a guerrilla trade war that now seems more likely to develop into a full-blown trade conflict.

By overplaying its hand with the activists, and messing with a huge global company with a massive ability to get its message out, China has foolishly just thrown away whatever goodwill it has built up over the years through its "charm offensive" -- at least in the West. Now, those arguing across a range of issues that China is a bad actor have been handed an enormous rhetorical club to beat Beijing over the head with. It's going to get ugly.

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