As many of you have probably read, Google earlier this week dropped a veritable bomb on the Chinese internet community by announcing its possible removal of web services within China. This threat comes in response to what Google has labeled as an infiltration of private company information (namely, the email accounts of known human rights activists within China) originating from an undisclosed Chinese network. The company listed around 30 other private corporations that had also been subject to hacking from the same source. Though the company has not said it outright, they hint heavily that the perpetrators are certainly linked to China’s government censors, but I do not think that this came as much of a surprise to anyone.
Google provides services to a regular user base of almost 100 million Chinese, and it has been noted by many reputable sources that this is a highly educated demographic, with as much as two-thirds of its users being college students or holders of degrees. Although Google is not the top search engine (Baidu, China’s number one search engine, has a user base nearly three times in size), it is favored by the academic and the business communities for being significantly less censored and providing greater accessibility to relevant international papers and documents.
It has taken me a bit of reading to understand what exactly is happening with all of the noise that has been caused by Google’s Tuesday announcement. It is as though we are in the first few seconds of insanity following a major announcement at a press conference. Many of the articles that I have been reading say quite a bit about the immediate facts, but it was not until this morning that I found any articles actually beginning to synthesize all of the information at hand. There are a few things that I want to point out in this matter, as I think they are quite important. The first point that we must look at is the actual statement of intent released on the Google Blog. The company has said directly that they will be in discussion with the government about the possibility of an uncensored search engine within China. I see no possibility in such an option, what with a government that still denies that it actually censors anything. In addition, I do not believe that the Google Corporation actually believes these talks will prompt the change they claim to seek. Instead, I think they have seen a very solid opportunity to build the framework for an explosive and intentionally controversial exit from the Chinese community.
This morning, I read that the Google motto is something along the lines of “Don’t be evil”, and began wondering what they are really thinking in this whole matter. Although this fuss was prompted by the hacking of private email accounts, the argument brought to the table stems mainly from disagreement with restrictions on access to information. Although the Chinese internet market is rapidly developing, it would not be a major blow to Google’s financial status to remove their operations entirely. This may seem to be business suicide, but I think they are gambling on the idea that their international recognition as the top western search engine will allow them an easy return should they decide in the future to come back to China. With this in mind, it seems that Google is hoping to act as a temporary martyr, and to instigate the start of a much larger movement within the Chinese public to push for an easing of internet restriction. Never before has such a massive company made such public opposition to the Chinese government. It is daring to say the least, and I think Google has done so with some intention of inspiring the voices of many who are currently keeping quiet.
Without the availability of Google, most of its current users will default to Baidu, which provides significantly reduced content and is generally understood to be buddy-buddy with the government censors. Such happenings will undoubtedly cause a large scale complaint movement among Chinese netizens and (as I think may be the hopes of Google) possibly spread to the typically less vocal majority of the web community. It will also prompt a huge outcry from the well educated millions of college students who will no longer have any ease in finding the information they regularly use for their studies. And finally (and this is very much speculation), I would not be surprised if it will cause some level of tension within China’s own government, as a decent number of government officials use Google’s services on a regular basis. Many people say that these officials can already access whatever information they want, but keep in mind that the vast majority of them are much lower down on the chain and do not necessarily have this privilege. For the most part, lower officials have little more awareness of their government’s doings than the people whom they govern, and I suspect that in many cases they are just as curious. Though we will probably never hear it firsthand, I expect that this will put a new level of pressure on the higher-ups to reduce the censorship, or to make greater exceptions.
Whether or not any of this will come to fruition is hard to say, and it depends entirely on whether or not Google actually leaves. At this point, if they are to uphold their statements, I cannot see how they will do otherwise, though as is common in the corporate world, statements do not mean a whole lot. One way or another, it has already drawn a massive amount of attention worldwide, and has raised the voices of many new, young students who are horrified by the prospect of loosing their great tool. This is certainly not an end to any form of censorship, but I think that this announcement will only help to push forward the slow movement toward reduced restriction, and has set up a foundation for private companies to begin their own interactions with the Chinese government (though this does scare the life out of me). The next few months will certainly bring greater light to the matter.