Google’s China Game

This morning, my Twitter stream was full of two things: Google’s planned exit from China and the Haitian earthquake.

The BBC reported the Google development with a headline with quotation marks around ‘may pull out of China after Gmail cyber-attack‘, which parses the Google Official blog content regarding the matter conservatively but in my view, accurately.

Industry commentators have varied opinions: Robert Scoble says Google stopped ‘playing footsie’ with the Chinese government long ago, while TechCrunch says the decision is about business and not thwarting evil.

When after PirateBay, I wrote a post titled “I’m just a dumb pipe”, there was disagreement both online and offline with my contentions about strategic intent and societal contract. Google’s China entry strategy had had to contend with both.

Strategy is a game, where every move has a counter-move and outcomes, both foreseen and unforeseeable. More precisely, it is a repeated game, where it is absolutely essential to know what game one is in and not to misestimate or underestimate one’s opponent, as Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote:

So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.
If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.
If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.

I must admit I was a little sceptical about Google’s justification about entering China. Google said it believed that the “benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results”.

So what went wrong? Three things in my view:

Cultural cross-wires: While writing this post, I searched to find any statements that the Chinese government might have issued when Google entered China. I didn’t find anything. What I find were interesting references to China having blocked Google, despite Google agreeing to censor results etc, and to a Chinese representative denying there is any censorship of the internet in China. Both references are from 2006. Did Google misread the signals or the intent of the Chinese government? Were the signs always there? Enough has been said about cultural miscommunication, straight-talking versus hint-dropping styles of communication but I think the Chinese government was always non-committal. Which means both parties were playing different ‘games’. Not a good sign.

Corporate hubris on the part of Google: It led to an underestimation, on Google’s part,  of the Chinese government’s desire to control China’s public, China’s public image and China’s growing economic might. By any means. Legal or illegal in Google’s view. Moral or immoral in the view of any one else.

Confusing vision (“creating a more open Internet”) with strategic choice (“agreeing to censor some results”): Agreeing to censor does not create a more open internet. We all know friends who live and work in China and play a game of cat-and-mouse with the government, using a proxy server till the government catches it and shuts it down, then finding another. And on and on it goes. Am I advocating disengagement? Not at all. It is important to engage with even the most intransigent of adversaries, but it is not the job of a public company whose shareholders may benefit some but lose more, should Plan A fail. On a related note, VentureBeat has an interesting assessment of how good or bad Google’s censorship in China was.

My friends, who work in human rights, are naturally pleased with Google’s consideration of withdrawal from China. For Google, it is a mixed basket – it is not a PR triumph (because sceptics are not easily pleased), nor is it a strategic win (China is a big and growing market and Google could be vacating the space for a competitor).

And the tragedy in all this?

Because Google agreed to censorship, most of the Chinese people probably won’t know it is quitting now. For them, it is business-as-usual! So much for open internet.

7 thoughts on “Google’s China Game

  1. Pingback: broadstuff
  2. It is also interesting to see the rise in Chinese Search Engines and the ‘in country’ competition to Google. The last time I was in China I found it to be far more ‘open’ than people imagine in the west. I never had any problems getting anything on-line, but I did have to pull a couple of tricks now and then! And guess what – the young Chinese are much smarter than their government and their agencies. But we should also remember that this is a very young nation that have come a long way in a very short time!

    @Peter: Thank you for your comment and insight! I have no doubt that western media tend to over-egg the pudding when reporting on China, since I know that it happens with reporting on India too. I do find it interesting – sometimes amusing, sometimes not – to note that emerging nations are expected not only to adopt a model of liberal democracy that may or may not be their preference but also to do it on the timetable set by people keen to get their hands on the burgeoning, emerging markets. Somewhere this reeks of arrogance that is hard to fathom. Few have your kind of vantage point, and even fewer are keeping an open mind, so thank you for sharing your observations from the coal face, as it were.


  3. Industry commentators have varied opinions: Robert Scoble says Google stopped ‘playing footsie’ with the Chinese government long ago.

    Lets see how this pans out and it won’t take long. I wonder who is playing footsie with whom here Google is going to be the winner!! I think not. Currently China has 400 million internet users and 200 million on broadband. USA has 80 million on broadband.

    @Jamie: Thanks for your comment. For Google, who did not offer Gmail or Blogger in China, and have products like Android and Nexus One in the offing, exiting China can be a traumatic and expensive decision. The numbers you cite are the reason why.


  4. While I find the whole saga interesting I am unable to connect the two incidents as google is trying to – attack on Google property (emails of Chinese bloggers) and Google’s reason for threatening to pullout of China. Google seems to be linking them in ways I don’t understand.

    If the emails and servers were within the Chinese territories they would and could get the information from Google – just like any western country does. Here it seems the Chinese government tried to hack into the servers which were remote (I am assuming here). So irrespective of whether Google stayed or pulled out of China this attack is a security matter and nothing to do with the Chinese desire to control etc.

    Now the matter which we are all talking about is more about how law is defined and enforced in the west and in China. China makes up as it goes and does not need to issue statements as governments in the west needs to – in order to defend it’s actions while dealing with Google.

    Google provides tonnes of information about users and retains data about us in the west so the governments can control and check over our shoulders. We do not hear any hue and cry as it’s turned into a law. All I see the problem to be is that Google is not able to engage with the Chinese government (party) and has no clear definition of what is law (and hence it is allowed to do) and what is not. I don’t think Google can enter into any country without following the laws of that country and hence I am not sure this has been handled well by PR and the management at Google.

    The play no evil is all crap – it all depends on which side you are on and for google where the $$ come from. Nothing stops them from operating from outside and facing all the barrage of attacks from the Chinese government. They went in to avoid that but now don’t know how to get out.


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