Google vs. China, what happened?

the story from China’s perspective

by jingchen wu

On January 12th, Google announced on its official blog that it was reconsidering its policies on content-filtering and censorship in China, citing a recent attack on its servers in which the email accounts of several human rights activists were compromised. Specifically, the search company said that it is no longer willing to censor search results and recognizes that it may be compelled to discontinue its operations in China.

Although Google has had a relatively stable relationship with China since 2005 and has thus far put up with its strict censorship policies, the compromised emails led Google to immediately antagonize the government as the one responsible for the attacks.

Google wasn’t the only company to be hacked in January; about a dozen high-profile companies, including Adobe, and several dozen smaller companies experienced security breaches. Both Adobe and Google have issued statements saying that the attacks may have compromised the security of their source code and other intellectual property. Google stated that the hackers obtained some limited data about two Gmail accounts, but not the full content of messages.

No evidence was later found that the attacks came from the Chinese government, but the hackers were traced to mainland China. A recent article in Wired magazine states that the hack attack was very sophisticated.

Initially, some speculated that the hacks were performed by the government in order to obtain data on human rights activists and high-profile source code, but the government denied all charges. A recent article by the New York Times posts that the U.S. National Security Agency has traced the attacks to two educational institutions in China, including one with close ties to the Chinese military.

At a recent TED conference, Google’s founder, Sergey Brin, speculated that business in China will continue, within the confines of Chinese laws and boundaries. Negotiations between China and Google now seem to be in favor of returning their relationship to the way it was before the attacks. However, until the source of the attacks is found, Google will still be apprehensive about its operations in China.

The Chinese people, on the other hand, hold strong opinions regarding Google’s response to the attacks and threat to withdraw. At the time of the attacks, I was vacationing in China and visiting some family and friends. We were at a family breakfast when the news came. My grandparents immediately erupted into debate. Having grown up during the Sino-Japanese War and witnessed the subsequent turbulent times of chaotic social and economic change in China, my grandparents were proud of their heritage and their country. My uncle joined, giving a speech about the economic invasion of China by foreign countries wishing to establish a foothold by “tricking the hard-working Chinese people into addiction to their products just like in the Opium trades of Qing Dynasty.”

And there I was – a Google fan since Gmail rolled out in 2005 – believing Google to be the pinnacle of human technology because it seemed to disperse the knowledge of everything to the masses, and from what I interpreted based on the news, was also a proponent in the fight for media rights. Meanwhile, here was my own family, dissing and beating the crap out of my favorite search giant like a meatbag hung out to dry. (Our neighbors there had a couple of those.)

But my family had a few good points. The Chinese people have always been the second child to Western countries, always getting the hand-me-downs. When the economic crisis struck in 2009, Chinese auto company Tengzhong almost bought the Hummer line from General Motors but the Ministry of Commerce rejected the offer; it was a broken deal over a failing line of autos that had so little value that GM discontinued it shortly after the rejection. Ford also announced in 2009 that the sale of the Volvo to Chinese manufacturer Geely would be completed in 2010 after a drop of 22 percent in U.S. sales.

While the U.S. is the largest market for Chinese goods, it’s also true that the U.S. sells back to China only a third of what it buys from China, and ranks fourth behind Japan at almost half of Japan’s export value. The U.S. is falling into more debt to China every year, but the Chinese are getting bad deals from that debt. In 2005, China’s commerce minister pointed out that the country needed to sell “800 million shirts to buy a Boeing A380 airplane,” pointing out the furthering imbalance of trade between China and the U.S.

On the other hand, the U.S. market has been responsible for a lot of China’s growth in the last few decades. The high-tech imports have blossomed China’s economy and trade, in addition to providing more jobs and higher standards of living for the Chinese people.

However, to the Chinese people today, the causes for dissatisfaction with the West often shadow these positive facts. In light of this sentiment, it was reasonable for Chinese citizens such as my grandparents to bear a grudge against Western companies. Chinese have a lot to be angry for.

But many Chinese are divided on the issue as well. The announcement of Google’s policy change sparked a variety of opinions on the Chinese blogosphere. While some bloggers were ecstatic about the possibility of Google leaving, others hoped in anguish for Google to return. An anonymous post on nfdaily.cn boasts: “Google leaving? Because it cannot adopt to our policies or because it’s not happy with its own?” Robin Li of China Youth Net wrote, “This is not the way Google should leave.”

Aside from being a search giant, Google also provides other services in China as it does in the U.S., such as Gmail, Google Reader, Maps, Google Docs, Youtube, Picasa, and numerous other web and desktop applications. As the second largest search provider in China after the Chinese company Baidu, Google holds a whopping 29 percent of the market share, the equivalent of all the other companies combined in the U.S. The number of people who use Google’s services is growing every day both here and overseas. More and more Chinese are relying on Google’s services for both personal and business uses. It’s not hard to see why Google would be missed in China.

And yet, Google has an image to live up to. The company’s motto, “Don’t be evil,” has been cited by many reports as the reason for Google to reject the Chinese government’s demands for censorship and pull out.

But I think that’s the more reason for it to stay. Google was the first Western search company to not be blocked in China. More importantly, it is the only major search engine that informs its users that content is blocked when they search restricted sites, all the while refusing to provide information about its users to the government.

Without Google, there is even less incentive for the government to lower the walls of censorship and for the people to climb the firewall. Without Google, there’s even less reason for the Chinese to trust Western companies that provide a market for goods and provide a higher standard of living. Without Google, there’s even less space for communication and negotiation between China and the Western world. Google has been instrumental in providing information to the masses in the 21st century in the United States, and should continue to spread ideas and fight for rights to knowledge in the rest of the world – China included.