As you probably know, Google very recently responded to hacks into it's China operation that could very well have been conducted by the government trying to trick human rights activists, with a two-part agenda:
(1) It is no longer complying with government restrictions. In short for the first ime ever, people in China are able to search for anything they wish and get results.
(2) It has threaten to leave if the government makes its GoogleCN situation untenable. By that it means in conflict with the company's stated "do no evil" policy.
Will Moss has posted the best analysis on it I've seen so far on his blog, where he said in part: "Google has taken China corporate communications playbook, wrapped it in oily rags, doused it in gasoline & lit a match."
I have spent all of one week in China, and I've probably read six-or-eight books on the topic. So I am far from an expert. When I was there, I met with a great number of Web 2.0 folk, including some serious blog dissidents, executives from GoogleCN and other executives who told us a good deal about how they work under and around the China censors.
I left the country understanding for the first time how little I understood about the complex, fragile relationship between the Chinese people and the nine elderly men who run the country as its Politburo.
I remember tweeting on my last day in Beijing, "Whatever you've heard about China is true."
Here are a few random insights I got from visiting China:
- When I asked about censorship and human rights, the most frequent answer was, "we are happy with the freedoms that we have." That may befuddle westerners who were born with an assumption of certain inalienable rights, but not so the Chinese, whose emerging generation has greater wealth, education, information, access, security that any member of their family ever had in prior generations. Some of their parents were victim of Mao cultural revolution. I spoke to a woman who was raised in a rural rice paddy where her father a history professor worked. Her grandmother was among the 30 million Chinese who starved to death during Mao's social engineering experience called the Great Leap Forward.
- The Politburo, at least a year ago, was generally tolerated by the people I met, who were among China's most successful and best educated. There seemed to be a general agreement that evolved in the post-Tianeneman Era. The government will give it's people unprecedented wealth. In return it will do whatever it please to suppress social unrest. In a country that need to create 17 million jobs, such suppression seems to make sense to many f the Chinese and expats that I talked with.
- Google came into China with a perceived arrogant attitude. Google officials did not deny this when I asked about it, but they said they had learned their lesson. They also told me that EVERY western company has to make some adjustments to make China's vast, multi-tiered government happy. My brother, who has been doing business in China confirms this. For Google this is probably harder because the company really seems to try to do no evil. It least it appears that way to me. And yet the irony of their Chinese compliance activities puts them in a uniquely awkward position vs local and international competitors with whom they compete.
Which brings me to some observations of why this issue has huge implications. This is a stand-down that will probably have huge implications for business and for China's relationship with the west and standing in the world community.
If China deports Google, most of the world will praise their heroic stance. Other companies will need to think of the repercussions of continuing to collaborate with a government that spies on its citizens and abuses those who seem to foment unrest. Likewise, if China deports Google, it will at a minimum have a dent on it's relationship with its emerging, well-educated citizens particularly the 350 million of them who use the Internet and have experienced the frustration of being blocked.
Other companies will have to rethink what they are willing to accommodate. Looking like a China government shill will not bode well for the image of most of the world's largest companies.
In short this incident may be a thread that has been pulled on a very large sweater. And the remainder of it may start to unravel, first slowly then perhaps more rapidly. That may sound like the good thing that I hope it is, except for one well-documented fact. When this government gets pushed or frustrated it sometimes responds with a great deal f violence toward citizens and guests.