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.

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