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An overdue approach to China

Yesterday Google remembered its Don’t be Evil maxim and announced A New Approach to China:

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.

14 comments to An overdue approach to China

  • owinok

    I have always asked myself, that since governments will not, then who will be the first to defy China. I have my answer now and in some way, I am not surprised that it is a corporation that earns it money from providing a valuable service as opposed to those seeking what is uncritically defined as the largest market.

  • West

    New motto:

    We’ll do just a little evil, until it looks like it isn’t worth our time.

  • John B

    Good for Google, as far as it goes.
    Perhaps the spirit of Reagan is not entirely dead?

  • Kevin B

    As a curmudgeonly old cynic, can I suggest that google’s conversion to anti-censorship in China might be due to the loss of some of it’s business in the ROW to Bing and the other search engines?

    The whole Climategate fiasco, (where a lot of people were complaining that Google was deliberately keeping climategate from it’s autocomplete algorhythm and/or hiding results), may have left them a bit sensitive to criticism and perhaps their response to the current Chinese harrassment is more robust than it might have been.

    Whatever, a B+ to Goggle for their belated effort and let’s keep an eye on them.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    A lot of banks and wealth management firms have been doing business in China and the question has to be, how far are they prepared to hold their noses and put up with whatever interference comes their way? The problem is that at the moment – which may soon pass – China is where the booty is.

  • Kevin B

    Stolen from a comment on PW:

    As Lileks puts it, “Google lies down with dogs, wakes, does search for ‘flea treatment.’”

  • allan

    Now goggle can put what it has learnt about censorship

    at the feet of the political elite in the West so as to limit

    debate and unwanted criticism. This is the real reason

    they wanted to go into China to hone their tools for

    controlling what surfaces on the net.

  • I do wonder why they’ve decided censorship is no longer acceptable as it hasn’t bothered them in the past.

    Also there moto correctly quoted is:
    You can make money without doing evil.

    Which is more an observation than any sort of commitment.

  • F0ul

    This would seem to me Google finally admitting that China is not the market the hype has been saying it is. Yes, Google is the liberal favourite in the west, but the rest of the world is not crazy about another US giant telling it that it knows best!

    China already has a couple of really big search engines, and while Google were able to become top dog from behind first time around – it obviously hasn’t been able to a second time!

    I understand that Google already has part ownership of the current Chinese No1 search engine, Baidu (spelling was never my strong point!) so this latest news is possibly more about brand protection than its about personal freedom!

    There is also the issue of user interface. Google is very well tuned for western usage, but the Chinese, and the whole of Asia for that matter has a different approach to style and content. The clean look Google used in China just looked empty to Chinese eyes!

    The case study of this episode will be very interesting to read if it ever escapes from the Googleplex!

  • “The clean look Google used in China just looked empty to Chinese eyes!”

    That’s right – Yahoo seems to be the default search engine for Taiwanese people with most of their online news coming from that source.

  • veryretired

    They’re talking about pulling out after coming under cyber attack. Now they are in talks with the Chinese government.

    This is a negotiating strategy, not some big moral epiphany. Google’s looking to stop the attacks and cut a better deal. Any components of that process that promote increased freedom of speech or internet access are strictly incidental.

  • John B

    There is an interesting comment on Google’s apparent lack of balance at this address:

    http://www.israelunitycoalition.org/news/article.php?id=4990

  • Paul Marks

    Agreed Adriana.

    Google (and, it seems, Yahoo) have acted late – but late is better than never.

    It is also not only a matter of basic morality – i.e. the practice of the regime in control of China to use all means (including internet means) to find and persecute people who dissent.

    There is also the “practical” matter of the P.R.C. regime regarding contracts as so much toilet paper.

    For internet companies (who rely on their copyrights and so on being respected) to do business in China is foolish.

    I make no judgement regarding “intellectual property rights” (an area of hot debate for libertarians) – but those who depend on this concept should avoid doing business in China.

  • Paul Marks

    Just in case anyone does not understand a related point….

    The Chinese regime also does not respect privacy rights – no more in business than it does in politics.

    So, again, if your business depends on “trade secrets” on even on the “confidentiality of client information” then avoid China.

    It is the last point that has finally made Google see sense.

    “Human rights are property rights” as Murry Rothbard used to say.

    If commercial client confidentiality is not respected – then political freedom is gone.

    This also, of course, has relevance regarding some developments in the United States.