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Google v. China? No, It's Bigger Than That

By - March 24, 2010

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Yesterday a crew ambled into my FM offices from ABC News, setting up quite an array of lights and equipment to shoot an interview. The topic was Google and China. Now, I’m a veteran of these situations, as is my staff, and fortunately the commotion was limited to my office, and the 45 minutes or so of set up happened while many of us were in a meeting.  

When they were ready, I sat down for the conversation and enjoyed my talk with the producer, who was piped in via mobile phone. We talked about many of the nuanced issues involved in this particular story. The crew in the room with me also seemed keen to have an informed dialog. I sensed the piece would be pretty intelligent.

But….instead of nuance, we get a story framed as “a battle of titans” – Google v. China, the death match! “Game on!” is how Diane Sawyer opened the piece. “Who will fire the next shot?!” the reporter asks in conclusion. I’m quoted somewhere in the middle, saying that China employs a large number of Internet police, a well-known fact that I mentioned more as a set up to another point. It all begs the question of why they bothered sending the crew in the first place, but …. at least the major networks are paying attention to the story.

And in a way, that’s really the story here. A private company has pushed a very public and political issue into the minds of several significant constituencies. First and foremost, Google’s move has forced China’s hand, and given those inside the country who may disagree with China’s own policies a clear example of their own leadership’s shortcomings. As the NYT points out today:

China also does not acknowledge to its own people that it censors the Internet to exclude a wide range of political and social topics that its leaders believe could lead to instability. It does not release information on the number of censors it employs or the technology it uses for the world’s most sophisticated Internet firewall. Its 350 million Internet users, many with fast broadband connections, are assured they have the same effectively limitless access to information and communications that the rest of the world enjoys.

Google publicly challenged that stance in January, and reinforced its ideological opposition to China’s policies by finally pulling the plug on its mainland search engine after a failed round of talks with Chinese officials. That forced Chinese leaders to defend their control of the Web…

Thanks to Google’s move, thousands, if not millions, of Chinese now understand the extend to which their own government has been duping them. And those who already knew have a new ally, and perhaps additional courage to continue change from within.

A second significant constituency is the US public. To my mind the US has been lured into complacency about China, forgiving China’s violation of core human rights as a cultural matter best swept under the rug. The main reason? Business! Profit! Huge markets! (Oh, and the massive number of US dollars now controlled by our pals in Beijing). It’s a classic conflict of American values: We are society built on freedom of speech and religion, both of which are brutally controlled by the Chinese government. But we are also a society built on capitalism and the profit motive. It’s clear which one had won in the court of US public opinion – until Google made a decision which forced all of us to think about it in a new light.

A third constituency, related to the first two, are the governments of both the US and China, as well as the executives who run major corporations based in the US. As public awareness and opinion unfolds in both countries, I can imagine shifts in both policy as well as practice in both public and private spheres. We now have an administration whose reflexive approach to China’s moral conflict with American values isn’t to sweep it under the rug, for one.

And if you are running a company that competes with Google in the US, chances are you find yourself in a pretty uncomfortable place this morning – answering to employees, shareholders, and consumers this question: Why can Google practice a values-based approach to business, but you cannot?

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Come to think of it, that’s a question that the US government should be asked as well. And inside the government, you can bet it’s already come up.

Meanwhile, news breaks today that Google’s main site was hacked, with its management bio page turned into Chinese characters (see image at left). Hmmm. Petty retaliation? I doubt it. But yet another strange twist to an ongoing tale.

The broadcast is here, you can watch the piece starting at around 9.15. I tried to use Hulu’s vaunted sharing features to embed just a clip, but the company seems to have caved to the TV overlords and disabled it. That’ll be a subject of another rant.

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10 thoughts on “Google v. China? No, It's Bigger Than That

  1. Great piece John,
    I think you lay out the stakes quite well. I also appreciate that you somewhat steer clear of company motives and focus on the functional impact of Google’s move. That is what counts.

    Related to your first point about being disappointed by the television segment, I was interviewed for a CBS News, Katie Couric piece on the impacts of social technologies on workplace productivity. The result was personally horrifying. It stripped all context from my comments, and focused on the wrong (in my opinion) points. A serious issue was reduced to a series of banalities.

  2. Tom says:

    I put together an open letter to the Chinese government:

    Dear Exalted Chinese Government Officials,

    We love your culture, your people, and your history. You are the world’s oldest civilization and the crowning glory to our common humanity.

    We ask that you relax your Internet censorship rules and we seek to convince you that there is great value in communities that have open Internet access.

    You should see what is written about the government here, in this country. There is enormous criticism of its imperialist policies around the world, and its domestic policies, especially its healthcare reform.

    There’s a massive amount of uncensored, anti-government content on our Internet, and in newspapers, TV, and on the radio. And yet there are no political demonstrations.

    All that open criticism of the US government and we don’t have a Tank man. Repressing ideas encourages aberrant behaviors.

    Please don’t be afraid of ideas. The Internet carries lots of ideas, there are so many it’s as if they are a large school of fish — your critics will be distracted by so many fish.

    Let us be your little brother, we are unencumbered with the same heavy responsibilities of tradition and history, and we have been able to experiment with the Internet and other ideas. Let us help our big brother navigate through the rocky waters and into the bright future we hold in common.

    Thank you for your attention.

  3. “Lured into complacency”? I doubt that thoughtful, decent people in the United States have ever forgotten that China is ruled by thugs. But many American business executives are neither thoughtful nor decent.

  4. jimjerky says:

    John,

    You are a thoughtful writer, but your “open it up” political philosophy is off the mark when it comes to China. They don’t play by your rules and could give a rats ass what Google does.

    They are communist China. They have been this way for a long time. They were this way when Google first entered the country.

    This was a mistake by Google. Only blinded fanboys can see it differently.

  5. Adam Fisk says:

    John- Love your writing and the fact you’re calling out ABC on yet more sensationalist journalism, but you’re unfortunately engaging in sensationalism yourself, as is the New York Times.

    You write: “Thanks to Google’s move, thousands, if not millions, of Chinese now understand the extend to which their own government has been duping them.”

    Wow. Do you really believe that? Have you ever spoken with any Chinese about this issue? Every Chinese citizen I’ve ever spoken with is far more aware of PRC censorship than you or me. How could they not be? They live with it every day, with many millions using circumvention tools every single day.

    This falls in line with a woefully outdated and simplistic view of Chinese people as this massive, amorphous blob getting herded around at the whim of the all-powerful regime. They are far more sophisticated.

    I applaud your analysis of Google’s “value-based approach” to business, but your characterization of the Chinese could use some work.

  6. Bart says:

    John

    I read this article (http://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2010/03/three-google-china-follow-ups/37941/ , 3rd point), and thought you would greatly appreciate the point: Google backed out of China because of Chinese attempts to limit Google, knowing how important access to the the Database of Intentions will be.

  7. Antonis says:

    Hi john,

    i have to say that i admire your articles and read them every time but i have some comments to make about this one if i may.

    you writte in your article: “Thanks to Google’s move, thousands, if not millions, of Chinese now … And those who already knew have a new ally, and perhaps additional courage to continue change from within.”

    Google is a great gateway of info and has to decide how to distribute and how to help the people around the world, providing news and data. However, they are not politicians or gods and they shouldnt play that role. The fact that the chinese decide to live under such ruling its there decision and we should accept it as Google has accepted it when they first entered the country. We should never forget that Google has accepted censcorship from various European countries in the past..and they still do. Cencorship up to one level exists everywhere even in the US.

    “And if you are running a company that competes with Google in the US, … Why can Google practice a values-based approach to business, but you cannot?” I think what Google should first answer is why they decided to first play with the rules of China and then changed there minds. Thats a proof of bad management by the company as they were fully aware where they were getting into -and the hacking is just an excuse. Also if google really wanted to make a value-based approach to the business then they should leave the Chinese market completely rather than re-directing in Hong Kong.

    In generally i believe that Google even if they are taking the right decisions now …they got into this mess by there own mistakes and shouldnt take so much credit -even if they take the right decisions in the end. They were forced to take those decisions after there failure to capitalize on such a big market.

    thanx for reading and really sorry for the long comment :)

  8. Derek Tumolo says:

    The number of Chinese learning this for the first time is immaterial. Its the how that matters. Its different to see active squelching, esp on such a large scale, instead of the usual silence.

    Also, China is not as stable as you would like to believe. Even despots rule by the good will or fear of their subjects, and many of China’s subjects are well educated. Google has created a flashpoint.

    Finally, Google’s motive is plain – its their mission statement. No, its not ‘don’t be evil’ in this case, although this dovetails nicely. Its to expand and categorize the worlds information. China represents a big gap in that plan. More cynically, google makes money on their mission statement. This is a strategic gamble.

  9. John says:

    Hey Adam – in fact, my sources are folks who are Chinese and say that most Chinese either do not know or prefer to not internalize the extent to which their government controls information flow. I think Google doing this forces that group to think again.

  10. Jarod says:

    @jimjerky, IMHO, china is not a communist country, or
    Chinese dont (if never) appreciate communism. If you insist this, you’ll more likely miss the point.

    But, China is kind of kindom which is very like previous chinese kindoms (Tsing, Ming, etc). It appreciates powerful central govenment. This govenment has kings, and officiers, that’s the key of the problem.
    It takes time for china to move from pre-morden to morden country, with the kindly help from both inside and outside.

    That’s what google is doing, RIGHTLY. This issue will possibly mark a big turning point in china history, as many believes.

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