We launched Google.cn in January 2006 in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results. [...]
These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered–combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web–have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.
This has been long time coming – and by long I mean a few months as apparently Google has recalled most of their engineers from China leaving behind skeleton staff in September last year – and yet vastly overdue. The move is surprising as the world got accustomed to ‘business’ justifications for dealing with totalitarian states – size of the market, encouragement of progress, which in turn breeds freedom, benefits to the oppressed, er, markets. Blah, blah, blah.
In as much as progress is encouraged by competition and customer sophistication, this argument is valid. In as much as these need to evolve in a framework based on the rule of law, lack of corruption, some respect for property rights and notions of individual rights and freedom, it clearly doesn’t apply to countries like China. During the Cold War, the detente of the 70s and its aftermath have shown that trading with the communist countries does not have marked impact on their political ruling class. Actually, it does as they are the ones who benefit from any foreign investment and trade. Both Coca-cola and Pepsi were widely available and I do not recall any tangible improvement to dissidents’ existence. Fair enough, Google is in business of information distribution and filtering, which is far more relevant to any regime opposition, however, what with compromise and censorship, it has ruled itself out that ‘game’ some time ago. As for technology transfer and indigenous competition they certainly had a constructive role – Baidu, the local search engine has most of the search market, having learnt much from the likes of Google.
A cynic might say Google has not much to lose by exiting China, the revenue from that market was ‘immaterial’ by their own account. Let the cynics have their moment. There are enough people and companies who worship Google as the ultimate modern corporation, or simply as a success story, and the signals this move would send can only be good. And long overdue.
I am not holding my breath for other companies to follow. There is no comment from Yahoo or Microsoft as yet but I suspect this quote by Tang Jun, former President of Microsoft China sums up a lot of thinking in the business world right now.
For Chinese netizens, it does not matter whether Google quits from China or not. But this was the most stupid decision they had ever made since giving up China was giving up half of the future world.
Mr Tang Jun is right, of course. The Chinese government and its business champions are hardly going to notice and bother even less. They have been hoovering up some of the best software engineers the Western businesses have made redundant in the last couple of years and growing their own breed too. All of the search engines in China have helped the Chinese government to censor speech, some of which we covered here before. Other companies, namely Cisco’s Panopticon Chinoiserie, have assisted in more active ways, though last year, the government tried, but failed, to force computer manufacturers to install a censorship program on their new PCs called Green Dam. Perhaps there is hope but, for now, count me among the cynics.