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Google agreement with NPM shows art fosters cooperation

The renowned National Palace Museum in Taiwan has just announced a partnership with Google to display art works and galleries online, providing comprehensive public access to one of the world's great collections of masterpieces. One hundred fifty museums around the world are participating in this effort to create and display digitized images of their holdings.

This case, however, has distinctive political as well as aesthetic significance, given the historic role of the museum's collection and the complex changing relationship between China overall and information technology.

The National Palace Museum was formed in 1925 in Beijing's Forbidden City, comprised of the art works owned by the imperial family which had ruled the nation. After the invasion of Manchuria by Japan in 1931, the art collection along with precious books and artifacts was moved several times before being relocated to Taiwan in 1948.

In recent years, there have been continuing tensions between Internet companies and the Beijing government, which is determined to censor politically touchy topics. For instance, the communist regime blocks websites that discuss the Dalai Lama, the Falun Gong religious movement and the violent suppression of protestors in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Communist computer monitors labor to interrupt information on an ever-changing official list of banned terms and phrases. Since late 2010, there has been a restriction on searches of the English term “freedom.”

Google in that year withdrew search services from China, after an unsuccessful effort to redirect Web queries to the more open environment of Hong Kong. By contrast, Cisco has been criticized for cooperating with Beijing in the “Great Firewall” censorship system. Microsoft last year agreed with Baidu, the dominant Web search provider in China, to provide censored Bing search services.

These developments are taking place in the context of rapidly expanding broader economic cooperation between mainland China and Taiwan. In early November 2008, historic transport accords were reached, including direct shipping, expansion of weekly passenger flights from 36 to 108, and introduction of cargo flights up to a maximum of 60 per month.

In the summer of 2010, the comprehensive economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) took effect. This accord is a major triumph for President Ma Ying-jeou, leader of the Kuomintang (KMT), who was re-elected early this year.

In a 2006 visit to New York, Ma emphasized the 1992 formal agreement with Beijing to accept the concept of “one China” but differ on specifics. That accord has been fundamental to continuing cooperation.

Pragmatism consistently has characterized Taiwan's approach to mainland China. Following Washington's formal diplomatic recognition of Beijing in 1978, a process begun by President Richard Nixon's 1972 visit, Taipei immediately launched a comprehensive essentially non-confrontational strategic response.

Taiwan has become essential investor for the enormous industrial revolution taking place on the mainland. Commercially successful, generally well-educated overseas Chinese in turn are a vital source of capital for the mainland. Expatriate Chinese also vote in Taiwan elections.

Viewed with the background of this economic and political tapestry, the new agreement between Google and Taiwan takes on much greater significance. Throughout the Cold War, the United States government was remarkably consistent in encouragement of artistic and scientific exchanges. Indirectly, intellectual exchange served to mute political conflict.

Projection worldwide of the beautiful images in the National Palace Museum is a skillful way of encouraging cooperation. Art expresses profoundly the shared heritage of the diverse regions of China.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (Macmillan/Palgrave and NYU Press). He can be reached at acyr@carthage.edu

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