Note: Colin lived in China in 2009 and as EFA’s internet censorship spokesman has previously commented on China’s Internet Censorship regime.
Google’s threat, in the wake of apparent Chinese government espionage, to withdraw from the Chinese market completely has created a storm of comment in the media and blogosphere. Google has been praised for a principled “don’t be evil” stand at the same time they’ve been lambasted for political naivete, opportunism or profit-seeking.The truth is no doubt a mixture between corporate pragmatism and idealism, as one would expect.
As other commentators have indicated, Google’s is very unlikely to prevail in a direct confrontation with China’s leadership, but suggestions that the move will be met merely with dismissal and disdain are probably overreaching. Google, one of the world’s highest-profile companies, is signalling to the world that doing business in authoritarian China may simply be more trouble than it’s worth. When the nation’s government is mounting operations against you to steal your intellectual property and at the same time use your database as a weapon against human rights activists, that probably qualifies as a hostile business environment, and you can be sure other CEOs around the world will take notice. That’s not welcome publicity for a country with any interest in attracting foreign investment.
It’s true that Google’s commercial successes in China have been mixed, with home-grown rival Baidu controlling the lion’s share of the search market. Some therefore see the retreat as primarily commercial face-saving. But this market failure has been, in part, due to the hostile environment Google has had to work in. As recently as late 2009 Google was made a scapegoat in the Chinese media in a pornography panic fostered by the leadership, with CCTV going so far as to interview its own employees on the evils of Google.
Amongst Chinese Internet users, reactions have been mixed but more emotive than I might have expected. Although the usual phalanx of patriotic netizens will respond vigorously to any perceived slight to China’s honour – the so-called “fenqing” or “angry youth” – there are plenty of people more thoughtful who worry about China’s place in the world, and are concerned that their favourite tool for communication and collaboration is in real danger. Those who have more contact with the West – they have foreign friends, work in a foreign firm – are more likely to use Google services and be aware of the things they’re missing out on, such as Youtube. It’s more than just these foreign-friendly few, though – 30% of China’s search market is still an awful lot of people, a lot of the most educated and upwardly mobile people in the country. They are not happy with the situation and surprisingly many are on Google’s side.
Message boards are abuzz, and comments supporting Google are common – “For this, Google must be supported, f**k, in the future I won’t use Baidu anymore!” or “I definitely support Google, definitely do not lower your head [bow, give in] to the Celestial Kingdom [Chinese government].” Some are mainly concerned about losing the functionality – “Without Google, how do I survive?”, and ChinaHush reports that Chinese tech blogger KESO wrote “To Google, this is a difficult decision. To me, this is a painful choice…Google has the world’s best knowledge management tools and productivity tools.”
The implications for freedom of information in China are as clear to Chinese as they are to us. Several Chinese have expressed to me a sense of weariness at the lengths their government will go to suppress information and unease at the possibilities should they go any further. It’s seen as a frustration and embarrassment and has an impact on their daily lives. This explains why Google can be seen by some as a champion. People who would not normally have strong political opinions are starting to get fed up.
This has gone so far that several Chinese undertook to go down to the Google office and leave flowers as an “in memoriam” and show of support. Shanghai blogger Jenny Zhu wrote that “Google is on the right side of history. I am bringing flowers to them.”
On the other side, several polls are saying that people want the Chinese Government to stand up to Google, and the newspaper editorials are predictably dismissive with People’s Daily accusing Google of “pouting.” No doubt many feel this way, but does it represent the main feelings rippling through Internet users? I think probably not, at least in the longer term. KESO wrote:
The Chinese internet, lack of experts, should probably be called as a country area network. Competition may be more black-boxed, and more under the table. For those Chinese netizens who have aspirations and ambitions, must be more diligent to train hard on how to get over the wall, to welcome the “iron house” era (difficult times) of Chinese Internet with good state of affairs.
With signs of increasing authoritarianism from the Chinese government, and an increasingly onerous censorship regime (for instance, the push to have Green Dam censorware installed on every PC sold in China) Google’s move may make sense for commercial as well as democratic reasons. Either way they will definitely be missed in China.