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On Google’s Threatened Pull-out from China

Updated on February 8, 2010

Clever Move, Clumsy Cover

Anything about Google is huge; and anything about China is gigantic. So when these two titans butt heads, we’ve got really big news. And controversy is the key word when people describe their relationship. There is no difference this time.

Earlier this month U.S. Internet search leader Google announced a threat that it is going to quit all its operations in China after suffering what it called a “sophisticated cyber attack”. It is hardly hiding its contention that the Chinese government was behind the attack.

Just as expected, and almost seemed pre-rehearsed, a chorus of criticism arose from both sides of the pond. The westerners, from the media in London to the government officials in Washington, came out and firmly stood behind Google.

China, of course, with its history and reputation of restrictions and censorship, is the bad guy in this drama. Google, on the other hand, is the glowing hero, willing to sacrifice its profitable business in the biggest market of the world so our high moral standard and basic human rights can be defended.

The hero beating back the evil, for the matter of principle. It’s a good show.

Funny thing is, despite all the grandstanding, few actually believe the story. And almost everyone knows that this is another one of those shrewd business moves that Google routinely churns out.

Ever since Google entered the Chinese market five years ago, China has been regulating the Internet the some way it supervises other media outlets, “in accordance with the country’s relevant laws.” So, since 2006, Chinese users who search “Tiananmen Square massacre” or “Dalai Lama” would come up empty.

Google knew from the get-go that Beijing was in the business of control and censorship, yet this “human-rights superhero” decided to enter the game anyway. It was telling the world that the mere presence of Google would help open up the communication channels and get information to the Chinese people true and free. Dancing with the wolves for five years, Google ought to look like a noble crusader.

But why is it getting out now? Google has invested billions in China, but with only $600 million annual revenue to show for it. What’s more embarrassing for Google is its sliding market share (down to 14 percent) there. Clearly it has been beat soundly by its Chinese rival, Baidu, which possesses around eighty percent of the market share in China. Other foreign ventures such yahoo and eBay are facing the same fate when competing with domestic rivals. But for the all-mighty Google, which has been coming out on top in pretty much everything it touches, simply admitting defeat and being sent packing is too much of a humiliation. It’s all about face.

However the cover Google uses for its retreat is less than convincing.

For the past few months, the Chinese government has launched a new across-the-board campaign against on-line pornography and violence.

“Ah ha, more censorship!” Google jumps, “we can’t take it any more! We are leaving; just teach those commies a lesson!”

Come on! Google did not make a blip when those Tiananmen Square images were blocked; it readily complied when the Chinese government demanded the information on the dissidents. And it threats to leave because they are cracking down on porn and violence?

Google boasts a motto of “Don't be evil”; fare enough. But what’s evil here? Porn and violence, they are tops in the evil list in the eastern cultures, and therefore should be rightfully censored by the Chinese people in their own country.

If Google truly wants to act as guardian of human rights and freedom of speech, it should not flee now. Instead, it must stay in the trenches and keep fighting. Otherwise, stop using such a flimsy cover for the sake of saving face.

Google knows its business; it is in China for the big money. If it’s eventually leaving, that’s because its business there has not turned out to be as lucrative. This would be a good business move. And blaming censorship? Now that is a clumsy cover.

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