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Google's Schmidt: the Great Firewall of China will crumble

Following Google's high-profile spat with China over censorship in 2010, the company has been mostly candid about its disagreements with the country's Internet policies. However, those comments have usually been tempered by the silent understanding that China must be dealt with in some fashion. But in a new interview, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt offers an even more revealing insight into how the company views China and its future as a global technology player.

"I believe that ultimately censorship fails... I personally believe that you cannot build a modern knowledge society with that kind of behaviour, that is my opinion," Schmidt told Foreign Policy magazine. "I think most people at Google would agree with that. The natural next question is when [will China change], and no one knows the answer to that question. [But] in a long enough time period, do I think that this kind of regime approach will end? I think absolutely."

Schmidt's comments were made last week offstage during the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual gathering of global scholars, artists, experts and business leaders held in Aspen, Colorado. Schmidt's comments come amidst China's new found popularity as Silicon Valley's hardware manufacturer of choice. China has also enjoyed new global influence as a technology hub as its local brands such as Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent rack up large chunks of market share in Asia versus Western competitors. But despite China's rise to tech prominence, Google's experience in the country has apparently changed the way it looks at the region.

"We argue strongly that you can't build a high-end, very sophisticated economy... with this kind of active censorship," Schmidt continued. "That is our view... We believe in empowering people who care about freedom of expression."

This tension between China as a facilitator of tech innovation as well as the source of various human rights concerns was the focus of a recent Time magazine cover story titled "The Cult of Apple in China." Presently, Chinese sales represent roughly 20 per cent of the company's overall revenue, a staggering figure that has compelled Apple to become more aggressive in its efforts to cater to Chinese consumers while remaining sensitive to local human rights issues and factory conditions as the global community watches closely.

On the other end of the spectrum, Google's fortunes in the country appear nowhere near as robust. In fact, Schmidt extended his comments beyond the topic of censorship and painted a rather dark picture of China for the future.

"The evidence today is that Chinese attacks are primarily industrial espionage... It's primarily trade secrets that they're trying to steal, and then the human rights issues, that obviously they're trying to violate people's human rights," Schmidt said. "So those are the two things that we know about, but I'm sure that there will be others... It's probably the case where the Chinese government will continue to make it difficult to use Google services... The conflict there is at some basic level: we want that information [flowing] into China, and at some basic level the government doesn't want that to happen."