Google’s Exit From China – Why, How and What’s Next?

Much has been said about Google’s exit from China in the media lately, yet as it is usually the case, disagreements on the myth of the cause of the event and its consequence seem to rise on many different levels. Even bloggers who are keen observers and commentators on china’s blogosphere seem to have very different takes on the issue. Many of them, like Rebecca Mackinnon, the most frequently quoted commentators in media on Google’s exit, remains supportive of Google’s exit , regardless of whether Google’s decision was purely due to its Motto, “don’t be evil”. To Rebecca and many others, Google should never have entered the Chinese market under conditions of censorship in the first place. Others, like Kai Pan from China/Divide, a newly established and well-received commentary blog on China, are highly suspicious of the motivation behind Google’s exit, and remain pessimistic about the benefits Chinese netizens would receive from this event. I’m personally more sympathetic to the latter group. But of course questions about how to best achieve your goals, ior n this case particular, how to help improve information freedom of Chinese netizens, usually finally run down to personal beliefs and ideologies. For example, Google’s Motto is “don’t be evil” and it sounds like the motto is an end in itself, and they are not talking about fighting evil. Yet isn’t staying away from evil assumes non-actions of a certain kind? When Google gets out of the mud, yes, it can claim to be clean. But, it also totally loses the opportunity to drive for change from within China. The whole scenario behind Google’s decision to quit, in the month of one of its founders Sergey Brin during his interview with WSJ, confirms the observation that Google would rather walk away with a pair of clean shoes than fighting in the mud. Well then, is walking away really the heroic thing to do here, for a company with the motto ” don’t be evil”?

Indeed, Mr.Brin plays a critical role in Google’s decision to quit. His childhood memory of the repressive Russian regime made him the most suspicious among Google’s top three leaders: himself, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, even when Google was entering of China. And it was Eric Schmidt who pushes for the framing of Google China. While Brin is a tech genius and idealistic in his resistence of “evil”, Schmidt, as the chief executive of Google, is profit-driven and realistic in Google’s approach to change evil. To Schmidt, entering China would be good both for the company and China. And from Brin’s WSJ interview, it was fairly obviously that even during the final decision, Schmidt was supportive of staying in China, even though at an earlier interview with Newsweek, Schmidt also expressed strong discontent with the censorship policy in China, probably keeping in line with the general stance of the company. Yet it is interesting that none of the Western media’s reports that I have seen has mentioned the politics inside Google China, and the impact of the resignment of its former Chief, Kaifu Lee. In a Chinese media analysis written right after Google’s announcement to rethink its strategy in China in January, it detailed the dilemma of Google China as caught-up between the government’s censorship policy, the suspicion from the Google headquarter about its existence, and the hostile competition from Baidu. Kaifu Lee, according to that article, was the key figure who was able to balance the different interest and ideologies in Google China’s business. And his close personal relationship with Schmidt has made Schmidt always firmly on Google China’s side in shareholder and executive meetings. Yet Lee decided to resign in pursuit of his own entrepreneurship in venture capitalism last September, and Google was not able to find anyone as capable as him in dealing with government relations and headquarter inquiries to refill his leadership. And Lee’s comment on Google’s decision revealed his personal opinion on the issue: ” A captain wouldn’t leave his ship even though he knows its sinking”, arguably referring to Google’s decision to quit as irresponsible.

What puzzles me most however, is the lack of good logic in Google’s explanation to quit. They claim that increasing amount of hacking activities to China-related Human Rights activists’ gmail account was the main catalyst of the event, and it was the “straw that broke the camel’s back”, according to Brin. Yet as many bloggers have noted, why Google turned a security issue into an overhaul of its policy in China? Google refrained from explicitly referring to the Chinese government as the originator of those attacks, but without which the reasoning seem pretty bizarre. Why on earth the fact that Google’ is under attack from some individual hackers would motivate Google to be suddenly tougher the Chinese government? To punish them for not educating their citizens well enough? And even if we grant that the Chinese government is behind the veil, how does stop censoring content for Google China would make Gmail service more secure, or to drive away more potential hackers?

These observations above seem to echo with the concern expressed in an open letter from a Chinese netizen for both Google and the Chinese Government, in that Google does not seem to be truly honest about the real cause of its decision. For one thing, it does not talk about its underperforming market share in China, and its unfavored position by the Chinese government in its competition with local giants. But interestingly, it was a major point raised by Google’s Director of Public Policy, Alan Davidson, during his testimony at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. In particular, he said that

“When a foreign government pursues censorship policies in a manner that favors domestic Internet companies, this goes against basic international trade principles of non-discrimination and maintaining a level playing field. Local competitors gain a business advantage, and consumers are deprived of the ability to choose the best services for their needs.”

Well, it’s true that Chinese government was clearly favoring Baidu and other domestic search engine, as indicated in the government’s severe denouncement of Google in its campaign to clean out pornography from internet. Speculators have it that Baidu has set Google up in that incident, and though having as much as porn-related information and image on its search engine, it didn’t receive a huge PR blown-away from the government. So the question is, why there is no mentioning of such trade issue in Google’s open letter in its blog, which is intended to the general public including the Chinese netizens, yet it was a main focus in its hearing in front of the U.S. government?

Second, nobody doubts that giving up the Chinese market would have lasting consequences on Google’s profit, and much has been said about that the quit is a big plus for Google’s brand image that would be appealing to customer’s in other markets. Still, it seems very puzzling for me that how such a big potential loss from China would be remedied by the liberal and conscious customers in the West, who I think would the few and selected. Thus, this comment from a Financial Times article seems particularly revealing to me: google’s exit “will help their image in the eyes of regulators,”“ and It could be significant, especially as they come under more regulatory scrutiny in the years to come.” And I think the regulatory scrutiny here, after a bit research, refers to scrutiny of Google as the monopoly in the search engine market. And if being friendly with the U.S.government in its advance of internet freedom as a dispensable human rights would help Google avoid the same fate as Microsoft, then it seems to make much more sense.

No wonder, many said Google has become the scapegoat in U.S. government’s trade-war and political friction with the Chinese government.

But my main concern, is how this whole drama would affect the Chinese netizens. Much still remained to see in the future, and it’s really hard to predict how Chinese government would interpret its role in a Post-Google internet age in China. Yet given that the whole motivation behind Google’s decision, as I have tried to examine above, was not based on a calculated response to the best interest of Chinese netizens, it seems to me that we should not be overtly optimistic about the impact of this event. Sergey’s triumph over Schmidt, Kaifu’s leaving, unsatisfactory business performance in China, moral and potential future political support from the U.S. government… All of these factors play a big role in Google’s motivation in leaving China, and Google’s tie with the U.S. government in handling the situation, would especially result in repercussions from the Chinese government.

Now, Google has basically passed the ball to the CCP. I have to admit that , in the course of this discussion and my guarded criticism of Google, I subconsciously have a higher standard for Google. My thinking is simple, CCP is a bad boy, Google is a “don’t be evil” good boy, wouldn’t you also want to expect the good boy to live up to its standard, to be more honest, transparent and considerate of the interests of Chinese netizens. And in helping the bad boy to change, isn’t it sad that the good boy now decide to leave him alone and shout: I cannot bear you anymore!? But it can just be me, and my personal belief that you have to be especially persistent and strategic in changing a bad boy, and that committing to him yet leaving him alone later is a bad thing to do.

Two days ago, four leading Chinese internet entrepreneurs, called for some internet special zones in China without any firewall filtering during an IT leader Summit in Shenzhen. Like testing the water of free market back in the Seventies in Shenzhen, these people argued that China should also test the water of information freedom. The idea was immediately dismissed by the director of CNNIC for its “inappropriateness for our times”. Well, but people are pushing for it, and the truth is, internet in China is going to become free when it comes to the time that not doing that would result in CCP’s fall. Chinese people, most of them just newly out of poverty, are not yet as concerned with internet freedom as with their desire for more material benenfits, partly explains why life-style and social networking features are the key to success in China’s internet market. But they will eventually, after fully exercising their material “freedom”, and when it comes, the CCP would have to make a decision either to compromise to stay in the course, or to be left behind in the history.  For any one of us who is concerned with internet freedom in China then, what we should think is how to push for the progress.  Google’s exit might have spurred some awareness of censorship among the Chinese netizens, which would have positive effects on the progress.  But the problem is, the influence of this single event will fade, and after that Google would be just out of the exciting battles among internet companies, netizens and the government.

Google could have been the fifth supporter for special internet zones, and push for gradual change along with its Chinese competitors, who are also increasingly dissatisfied with the tight control. But Google has left….

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2 Comments

Filed under demystify China's cyberspace, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Google’s Exit From China – Why, How and What’s Next?

  1. bw

    Like the last paragraph

  2. bw

    like the last paragraph, esp the last sentence

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