After a week of mixed signals and speculation (see previous blog post), the Chinese government has decided to renew Google's web license.
While a number of commentators are interpreting this as a "climbdown" or "wimp out" by Google, I don't understand how they have reached that conclusion. As I pointed out last week, the only thing that has changed since March is that after typing "google.cn" into the browser's address bar and hitting "return," users have to make one extra click before reaching the uncensored google.com.hk. While the google.cn page now includes links to music, translation, and shopping services, the search box you see there on the page is just a static image that takes you immediately to google.com.hk as soon as you click on it. If you have grade school literacy in Chinese it's extremely obvious from looking at that page that if you want to search anything other than music or shopping you can simply click through to google.com.hk. I don't see how adding the extra click prevents users of Google's general search from using the service any more than the direct redirection from google.cn to google.com.hk which Google implemented in March. Of course, if you are searching from inside China and don't know that you can add an "s" to the "http:" in the address box and avail yourself of the "https" encrypted function that make your searches invisible to the Chinese network operators, searches on politically sensitive terms will get blocked by the Great Firewall. But that has been true since the redirection began. It hasn't changed. So Google's change implemented last week has no substantive impact on what Chinese Internet users can or cannot access via google.cn.
The change has, however, brought them into technical compliance with the regulations. And the authorities - for whatever reason - have decided that this change is sufficient despite the fact that in spirit Google is no closer to compliance with their wishes than it was in late March.
Since Chinese regulators don't confide in me personally I can only speculate on their motivations. It seems that the pragmatists have prevailed over the ideologues in this case. If Google's web license were to be denied, Google would be shut out of China completely. That sends a very negative message to the international business community, which is already concerned about China's politicized business environment. Questions would be raised about barriers to trade. The problem could be taken to the governmental level at a time when the last thing the U.S. and China need is more cause for tension. Now that Google.cn is in technical legal compliance and the uncensored search engine has been taken offshore out of mainland Chinese jurisdiction to Hong Kong where it is perfectly legal, it's better for Chinese regulators to declare victory and allow Google to pursue business activities in China that do not run afoul of Chinese regulations: R&D, advertising sales, mobile operating platforms, etc.
Another reason why it's in China's interest to let Google engage in China despite its resistance to censorship has to do with China's long term strategy for economic competitiveness and innovation. As the recent government white paper on the Internet made clear, Internet and mobile services are a core component of China's strategy for success as a global economic powerhouse. Keeping out foreign competition might be good for Chinese companies in the short term, but not in the long term. If Chinese companies are going to compete with the world's most innovative companies, they're not going to succeed if they're sheltered from competition in their home market because the domestic business environment is excessively political. I know that many influential CEO's of China's most successful Internet and telecoms companies certainly believe that an over-insulated market is not good for their businesses in the long run. It is my impression that this point has been getting made, quietly, to people in the government over the past few months. This point of view has even managed to surface into the public domain here and there on the Internet. One of the most compelling examples were remarks made by Edward Tian, "the father of Chinese broadband" at an IT industry forum held in Shenzhen in late March soon after Google began redirecting google.cn to google.com.hk. Tian said (translated by Luke Habberstad at China Digital Times):
You ask: who is the winner? Is Li Yanhong (co-founder of Baidu) the winner? This is hard to say. After Google left, many angry youth in our country said this was good. However, Google is also China’s best tool for understanding the West. In order to make the West understand the achievements of China’s reform and opening, many have to search through Google. Baidu maybe needs 10 or 20 more years before it can be acceptable to the Internet users of the West. It is possible that our reform and opening has lost a great tool for external publicity. We have to consider a question from two sides.Perhaps the people who approved Google's license found such arguments convincing, and in this case chose the long-term economic interests of the Chinese people over victory in one small skirmish.
The second problem. Google is not just for searching. Google represents the future of information technology, since the Google search engine and Google cloud computing [support IT technology] behind the scenes. When we make this sort of company such a big rival, are we not also rejecting these technologies? Let us consider the accomplishments we have now achieved with a modernized core attitude. They came precisely from having an open mind. We brought over the Western invention of mobile communication and the Western invention of photo-communication, and took the title of being the nation with the largest telecommunications company in the world (China Mobile), thus achieving a leap in development. In the future, software technology might emerge in a form that uses Google services. Can we simply follow one sentence from Comrade Lenin and then throw the baby out with the bath water? We need to consider these questions.
On Google's part, they retain a foothold in the Chinese market while remaining true to their January pledge that they would no longer censor their Chinese search engine. And yes, I ran some tests today with politically sensitive Chinese-language terms on Google.com.hk. The results were not identical to Google.com because all the local Google search engines favor local content more heavily (thus results are not the same on Google.fr, Google.de, or Google.jp vs Google.com either). But I found no evidence of political censorship. For example: in a search for the Chinese language words for "Tiananmen square massacre" Google.com.hk returns all kinds of material containing details of June 4th 1989 carnage including graphic videos at the top of the video search.
Some commentators are slamming Google for capitulating because the company wants to remain engaged in China at all. Frankly I don't think that the cause of freedom and openness in China would be well served if all Western Internet companies pulled out of China completely. I don't believe its a simple matter of all-in or all-out, engage or disengage, with nothing in between. What's important is how you engage. Are your business practices, products and services helping to move things in a more open direction? Or are you collaborating with the surveillance and jailing of dissidents and providing cover and legitimacy to the world's most sophisticated censorship system? I believe it can be possible to engage in China while upholding core principles on free expression and privacy. To say that it isn't easy is a massive understatement. I'm not saying Google has always done everything right or that they won't make mistakes in the future - in China or elsewhere. But I am hopeful that they will continue find it in their global, long-term business interest to try to do the right thing, correct their mistakes and acknowledge wrongdoing when that happens, and continue to work with activists and socially responsible investors to prove that principled engagement is not only possible, but necessary.
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