Google vs China: who's got the most to lose?

22 Mar 2010

Alex Watson examines who will suffer most from Google's planned exit from China

When Google announced at the beginning of January that it was prepared to pull out of China, so began a tense stand-off with the Chinese Government, with the world waiting to see who blinked first. Now, as Google reportedly prepares to pull the plug on Google.cn, experts are wondering who has the most to lose: the search giant or China?

At last week’s South by Southwest conference, Kaiser Kuo, a former director of digital strategy for the Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency in China, gave an illuminating talk that examined the history of Google and other Western internet firms in China, their relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the likely outcomes of the current stalemate.

Chinese netizens often expose corrupt officials and injustice, even to the point where high ranking CCP leaders will field questions online

When Google first revealed it was willing to abandon its Chinese search engine, it was very swiftly followed by a combative speech by the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who explicitly endorsed Google’s position. According to Kuo, conservative forces in the CCP assumed this was no coincidence. Given the role the internet played in the Iranian election, you can see why the party might feel threatened. Observers assumed Beijing would simply show Google the door, seeing Google’s declaration as an intolerable affront.

In reality, the CCP issued only bland boiler-plate statements about how companies operating in China must comply with local law, and if anything Google has had an easier time than you might expect in the intervening two months. Google Docs and Google Groups, two services which the CCP had barred in the past, have been unblocked, for instance.

Internet nation

According to Kuo, the CCP’s hesitancy is due to the increasingly complex relationship between the Government, the Chinese public and the internet. In China, the internet is very much becoming the de facto public sphere. Not a week goes by without someone in the CCP changing their mind because of opinions expressed online.

Kuo related the story of a woman called Deng Yujiao, who last year was sexually assaulted by a CCP official. She killed him in self-defence, but to everyone’s astonishment she didn’t serve jail time, thanks to the public outcry that took place online. Chinese netizens often expose corrupt officials and injustice, even to the point where high ranking CCP leaders will field questions online (even if this is largely for show).

Kaiser Kuo

Some of China’s netizens are extremely nationalist and believe the Government should take a harder line against Western internet companies, especially in light of Clinton’s speech. However, a good number are pro-Google, and while the CCP can appease the nationalists by talking tough on issues such as Taiwan or Tibet, for a number of tech-savy urbanites, Google and censorship is their issue. “It’s how they’re defining themselves,” according to Kuo, who said the potential backlash is one of the reasons the CCP hasn’t lashed out at Google.

Since it first started offering Chinese-language search on Google.com in 2000, the company has built up a sizeable and very identifiable audience. In part, this is because Google’s approach to operating in China wasn’t as black and white as simply capitulating to the CCP’s desire to censor results. It was very transparent about the state control, with a message in Chinese on each page saying that certain content was omitted owing to local laws.

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