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Google and Saving Face in China

Author: Adam Segal, Ira A. Lipman Chair in Emerging Technologies and National Security and Director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program
March 23, 2010

Google and Saving Face in China - google-and-saving-face-in-china

Adam Segal, Ira A. Lipman Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism and National Security Studies


After several weeks of negotiations with the Chinese government, Google announced on March 22 that it was redirecting users of China-based search engine--to where results are not filtered or censored. Google will keep some R&D and advertising on the mainland.

For Google, it is a clever maneuver in very difficult circumstances. The company does not back down from its January 12 announcement that it could no longer censor results on after discovering that its source code had been hacked and the Gmail accounts of human rights activists targeted. Yet by moving to Hong Kong, the search giant can claim that it is not abandoning Chinese users--an important issue not only to those who argue that Google's presence in China was a force for good that increased the flow of information, but also, perhaps more importantly, to advertisers who want to reach Chinese consumers.

Now the other shoe has dropped. The day before the announcement, Beijing mounted an aggressive public relations campaign against the company, calling its actions "totally wrong" and claiming that it had "violated its written promise (ChannelNewsAsia)." The New York Times reports that Beijing is already filtering and sometimes blocking access to search results on Google in Hong Kong. China Mobile and China Unicom have either announced or are expected to announce the cancellation of business deals for mobile search and Google's Android phone.

These early moves are likely to feed into the feeling in the foreign business community that China has become an increasingly hostile market. A recent survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in China shows companies that feel unwelcome jumping to 38 percent, up from 26 percent in 2009 and 23 percent in 2008 (WSJ). These feelings are also likely to spill over into U.S.-China relations since many in China believe that Google has closely coordinated with, if not been directed by, the State Department in its calls for Internet freedom. Public criticism by Chinese officials is not going to be well received in the United States as both sides grow increasingly snappish about the bilateral economic relationship and the valuation of China's currency, the yuan, in particular.

These initial countermoves by Beijing may be enough for it to declare victory. To its more nationalistic netizens, the government can claim it did not back down in the face of foreign pressure (and still continue to filter sensitive material). Some access to Google will remain and so the government can show that it is sensitive to scientists and others worried (Nature) about the impact Google's departure will have on the country's innovative capability.

If this is indeed where Beijing stops, it will be a welcome sign that the Chinese leadership both cares about the increasingly negative view of China in U.S. domestic politics and can do something about it by moderating its own foreign policy pronouncements. China's increasingly assertive (Economist) international stance over the last six months suggests, however, that foreign businesses and U.S. policymakers can expect things to get worse before they get better.

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