So, Google says it’s going to stop filtering search results for their Chinese search engine (www.google.cn). If that means they become required to leave China, so be it. The exact wording is: “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.”
Interestingly, this is being reported largely that Google has said it will pull out of China, which is not correct. They may well have to pull out of China, and shut down Google.cn, but they haven’t said they will. They are very clearly leaving the ball in the government’s court, and I suspect that if they are told to leave, they will attempt to make very clear that they are being evicted, not that they have chosen to go. Unfortunately, the meme may already have spoken: Google is taking its marbles and going home.
The general take on this side of the Firewall is that this is a bad business move. This approach really frustrates me, and is indicative of the extent to which we ascribe only business motives to business entities. The assumption seems to be that a) Google must want to be the largest and wealthiest [technology] company in the world; and b) that in order to ‘win’, they must have China as a market. There is also an assumption that they owe it to the shareholders to do so. This, of course, ignores Google’s mission statement [Don’t be evil], something which is usually only reported as a kind of joke. Few people seem to believe that it may be entirely serious. It also assumes (in line with conventional wisdom) that China is the single most important market in the world, for almost any product. This is probably not true. In any case, Google only ever had a small part of the search market in China, and didn’t seem to be in much of a position to increase that. (Baidu is the main search engine in China. Look familiar? Although, Baidu has its own problems right now. ) What is not often reported is the reason why Google is doing this.
Behind the Firewall, reactions are mixed. (Disclaimer: I don’t read or speak Chinese. Everything I know I learnt from Chinahush, Chinasmack, Chinageeks, Danwei, Digital Times, China Media Project and other such sites). There is the usual cry of ‘China is better at everything, who needs Google?’ jingoism, mixed in with more serious discussions of what this may mean for the average user in China. People are testing the search engines and not seeing any major changes in results so far. People are also worried about what will happen to services like Gmail, especially. [Heck, I’m worried that the next time I’m in China I won’t be able to access my email myself.]
What I’m interested in is something which is not often discussed: what sector of the Chinese public would be most inconvenienced by the loss of Google? I have absolutely no way of knowing this, but my instinct is that it would be the better-educated and more outward-looking ‘netizens’ [not my favourite word, but pretty much unavoidable now] who are most likely to use their services, as opposed to sina, or baidu, or any one of the many other homegrown sites. I know I have my students create Google accounts for assignments/blogs/etc while they are here, and I know several who continued to use them when they returned. I can’t help thinking that it will just make China more insular if/when Google goes.