Symbolism is never lost on the Chinese, who are the masters of signaling, and thus there was some great poignancy to Google’s A new approach to China being posted to the blogspot.com domain, which is blocked in its entirety by China’s censorious government. This proved quite a sassy way to illustrate a point, before even starting on the merits of the case. Those outside China didn’t even notice. Everyone inside China, including the officials, had to turn on their VPN to read it.
Now that the deed is done so publicly, I don’t imagine either side will back down, and nobody expects Google.cn’s redacted search service to last much longer, with perhaps a further punitive ban on google.com for the sheer audacity of this insubordination. But already today the blogosphere erupted in competing narratives explaining Google’s autodefenestration from Chinese search, and not all were wholly credulous of Google’s stated motives.
Among the cynics, the arguments ran thus:
– Google is misrepresenting its decision: It was a face-saving, kudos-generating way to exit a failing business (though without explaining why profitably capturing 31% of the search market in China should prompt shutting down).
– Google is making a mistake: No business in their right mind would purposely anger the masters of such a lucrative market, so this has to be a stupid tactical mistake. (The stated presumption here is that Google cannot be ethical, or it would not have entered China in the first place, so this fiasco must be a very bad business decision merely masquerading as a moral decision.)
Among the partisans:
– Google was pressured into it by Hillary Clinton, thinks Rao Jin, the founder of the China’s patriotic Anti-CNN forum. (I suspect a failure of the imagination on the part of Rao — clearly, he is projecting onto the US how things are done in China.)
And tomorrow, expect the official mouthpieces’ take, which I predict will involve far more references to the peddling of pornography than to the free market of ideas.
I, Bento, take Google’s explanation at face value, however. And I intend to restate the narrative in terms that will be familiar to long-time readers of Ultimi Barbarorum: All along, Google’s approach to China has been that of the scientist: There was a testable hypothesis, an experiment, and a conclusion based on that experiment. And today, we saw the publication of the results — the hypothesis proved false.
Specifically, the hypothesis, as formulated by Google during 2005: The internet in China will become freer in the coming years, and Google’s presence in China will help strengthen this process. Many believed and hoped this might be the case — the Olympics were approaching, China was opening up, officials exuded reasonableness.
The experiment, initiated in January 2006: Enter the Chinese search market, try to improve the system from within by collaborating with the regime, and see if China’s internet gains freedoms over time.
The evidence: Over the past few years, a progressively stricter program of shutting down those Chinese sites that do not comply with demands for censorship and surveillance. The progressive blocking of all popular foreign sites that allow uncensored anonymous communication, including several Google properties: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Blogger, WordPress, IMDB, Google Docs, URL-shortening services… And, what Google cites as the final straw, recent industrial-strength malware attacks aimed at Gmail-using Chinese dissidents.
The conclusion: Google’s collaboration was not making things better; things were getting worse. They admit they were wrong! There may have been a financial return on its China investment, but the civic return proved disappointing.
Faced with this realization, Google could have done nothing. But that way lies death by a thousand cuts as web property after web property gets axed. How soon before Gmail gets blocked? Google Maps? Earth? Picasa? Google Reader? Instead, Google cleanly terminated the experiment: There will be no more collaboration with the regime. Now China must throw them out if it wants to save face domestically — albeit at the price of losing face internationally.
As Spinozists, this is a proud day for us. Google has posted that placard declaring China’s government Ultimi Barbarorum in a public place. Gone for them is the queasiness of having to placate a regime that believes calling for free elections deserves 11 years in jail for subverting party state power. I’m betting it’s a relief.
A postscript: I was surprised that several Shanghai-based European VCs and businessmen I follow on Twitter were among the cynics, berating Google for not conforming to Chinese/Asian business practices based on saving face, consensus and relationship-building, instead reverting to an “American” ultimatum. But these views come from individuals who have already made their peace with China’s political system, and whose business models and reputation do not depend on the unfettered flow of information. Perhaps some of them are unwittingly using the occasion to signal their own reliability as partners in China: “Look at us — we’d never consider doing what Google just did.” Google may have burned its financial bridges, but they are burning their moral bridges, making them the Stupid Cartesians of this sorry episode, Baruch.