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A searching question

Google’s withdrawal from China has been as long and laboured as Napoleon’s 1812 retreat from Moscow. But has it been as damaging?

A case of the search for truth over the search for profit?

On Monday, Google (finally) shut down its search engine in China and moved it to Hong Kong. The China Daily lamented that Google’s decision was a “lose-lose situation” for the firm and China. But it quoted a 28 year-old finance worker in Beijing as saying: “It is a regrettable decision. It was inevitable though. The government was never going to compromise on filtering.” Since Google moved its site to Hong Kong it has been performing erratically – with users in China receiving either no results or government-censored searches.

The Global Times reckons Google has lost this battle. It noted that when the Californian company initially announced its threat to pull out of China on January 12 it had “high expectations for rallying more foreign companies in China to its ‘noble’ cause. That approach has proved wrong.” The bulk of the local media has parroted the government line that Google was the party at fault in this debacle. After all the US search engine had signed an agreement in 2006 to filter (i.e. censor) searches in line with local laws. It was Google that changed its position and breached this agreement, reports Xinhua, by declaring it would offer uncensored searches.

The People’s Daily was the place to go for Maoist rhetoric: it accused Google of cooperating with US intelligence forces. It thought the whole Google incident could prove an “exploratory pre-dawn battle” in a forthcoming internet war with America.

Google founder Sergei Brin defended the company’s decision in terms of its ‘don’t be evil’ mantra. He told the Wall Street Journal that China has “made great strides against poverty and whatnot. But nevertheless, in some aspects of their policy, particularly with respect to censorship, with respect to surveillance of dissidents, I see the same earmarks of totalitarianism [that I saw in my youth in the Soviet Union], and I find that personally quite troubling.”

The BBC’s China correspondent, Damian Grammaticas described the effective “shutting” of Google’s China search engine (google.cn) as “a major blow to China’s international image”. But the BBC’s business analysts described it as a “long term gamble” that sacrificed China earnings for principle.

David Pilling in the Financial Times reckoned the company had retreated from its initial threats to quit China entirely: “Google has hedged its bets. For the moment, it will retain a research and development presence, as well as a sales team, in the mainland.”

After all, while Google’s Chinese revenues are currently small, at about $250-300 million, Pilling thinks it can’t afford to totally abandon China. Its new strategy still leaves the firm a functioning Chinese search engine (albeit now based in Hong Kong) – a strategy he terms ‘one country, two servers’ and which means it retains a toehold in China. One expert told the FT that Google’s revenues in China could still swell to $5-6 billion within four years.

What will be the impact on China and on Google?

Shanghai Daily probably best summed it up with the headline “Life after Google proves no problem”. China Daily agreed, quoting publishing professional Qiu Xueying saying: “Google’s departure will not make any significant difference to my life. I mainly use Baidu. Google is just a supplementary tool.”

The Global Times thinks Google made as “a huge strategic misstep.” Indeed, China Unicom announced it will drop Google’s search function from its phones.

“Google’s decision may not cause major problems for China right away,” reported the New York Times. But in the longer run, experts believe “China’s intransigent stance on filtering the flow of information within its borders has the potential to weaken its links to the global economy.”

One headhunter told the South China Morning Post that “[a third of Google’s China staff] are actively seeking job opportunities elsewhere.”


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