from Asia Unbound

Playing in the Global Sandbox

January 15, 2010

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When I first heard the news that Google had outed the Chinese for their widescale cyberattacks and would no longer operate its service in China if subjected to government censorship, I gave a cheer. Score one for standing up and shouting from the rooftops—we won’t take this anymore. On both human rights and business principles, Google gave voice to what many people working in and on China have been feeling for a long time but only rarely articulating.

The unfolding Google-China drama is important on many fronts, most of which have been discussed by my colleague Adam, as well as by others over the course of the past several days. Beyond the theater of it all and the potential ripple effects through the rest of the community doing business in China, however, Google’s declaration highlights once again the central problem of China’s rise: it wants to play in the global sandbox, but it wants to play by its own rules.

The rules of the sandbox, however, have been established over generations: you carve out your own space for play, you make room for others, you can borrow others’ toys, but only if you ask first, and things work best when everyone cooperates. It’s the last two rules that China has not yet learned and that we in the international community have not helped it learn. After all, a bully in the sandbox is generally only stopped by parental intervention or a truly confident child who understands the rules and is willing to stand up for the others.

Helping China learn the rules of the sandbox won’t be easy. Over the years we have become comfortable giving in to the newest big kid on the block. We give away our technology for the privilege of doing business. We trade out the Dalai Lama in the vain hope that our sacrifice will be appreciated and rewarded. And we make excuses for all forms of political repression on the grounds that people in China are better off today than fifty years ago.

Google is the first popular kid to stand up to the big, poorly-behaved one in a long while. As everyone knows, however, it takes time and repeated boundary setting to help change a child’s behavior. Since there won’t be any parental supervision in this sandbox, we can only wait and hope that more companies and countries will gain confidence from Google’s bold stand and follow suit. If they do, in the end, just like the Chinese always say, we’ll have a “win-win” solution.