Google vs China: It’s all in the form

Written by Julen Madariaga on March 23rd, 2010

imagesSo Google has done it finally. My worst predictions have turned out to be right, and is living on in exile, challenging the authority of the Chinese government from Hong Kong. Speak of burning the bridges.

Like usual, most of the commentators our there got it all wrong. This is not about Google offering an open service to the Chinese from outside. If Google wanted to do that, they would quietly close down and continue with their HK search site as they were already doing before. There is nothing new on this Google HK except the translation of the interface to simplified mandarin, a simple tweak that has little impact on usability for mainland netizens.

If Google really wanted the Chinese to enjoy free search, they could have tried to give some face to the Chinese government, instead of literally forcing it to retaliation.

But Google HK is obviously not a sustainable plan, it is just a gesture, an open challenge to the authority of the CCP. The redirection to this site and the welcoming message in simplified is clear enough in this respect: “welcome to the New page of Google search in China”. Take that, Beijing, we don’t give a damn what you say, anti-democratic freak.


One clarification in case someone gets me wrong: I have been one of the harshest critics of  Google when it collaborated with the Chinese censors, and I support any action that could lead the Chinese government to stop censoring the internet. The problem is, I don’t see Google’s actions are conductive to this result, but quite the opposite.

It is all in the form. Even if Google is right to stop censoring (and I think it is), you cannot deal with a country like they are dealing with China. Google leaders are trying to do their significant bit, but they know nothing of diplomacy and they have messed this one up from the beginning. International politics is not business, the stakes are much higher, and form is essential. In this field, righteous accusations and challenges normally lead nowhere but to more entrenched positions, and ultimately it is always the people that foots the bill.

So now that Google has made its best efforts to get all its services blocked, it looks very likely that it will succeed. The people of China will not be able to use Gmail or the promising GBuzz anymore. The voices within the CCP that struggle for more openness are left defenseless, and the internet will be even more divided than it was before. A bad move for business, bad for the Chinese, and bad for a free World Wide Web.

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Comments so far ↓

  1. Mar

    Google will show the users pages that have the best PR. If you search in chinese, censored search or not, all the critical content has already been removed from chinese internet or is blocked if it’s a foreign based site and blocked = few links = small PR.
    So, if you search for tiananmen pictures in chinese on Google HK, you’ll only find the nice pics of the gate…
    For me it is just (as we say in french) a sword blow in the water. :) Nothing will change except that the GFW will get a serious update.
    - Woods

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    @Woods - I have done many tests before (search this blog for Google or GFW and you will see) and I can tell you with absolute certaity that was censored by Google. In fact, you don’t even need to look at my tests, the company itself admits it. IT is not a matter of PR, it is a matter of deliberate censorship.

    Regarding HK, it is just the normal search engine, it is not specific to HK. Obviously when you search Tiananmen in Chinese you don’t get images of the tanks, just as when you search “Paris” you dont necessarily get images of the Printemps 68. But that is because you are not looking for the right terms. Try 六四大屠杀 for example, that is how the event is known here, and you will see.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Woods Reply:

    @Julen Madariaga,
    Of course, I might not have been very clear. If you search for a special information that was censored by Google you’ll find it for sure. But common searches will not necessarily show the sensible content, like in the tiananmen example, as censored content might not have a great PR due to low amount of links.
    - Woods

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    @Woods, OK, I get your point.

    It is true that the Google algorithm itself can have some involuntary censoring effect, as the vast majority of users of simplified mandarin are within the GFW and they dont access Google through proxy.

    On the other hand, I have the impression that Chinese simplified and traditional are the same language in Google search (ie. searching for a term in either of them gives the same results). I still have to test this more to be sure, but normally all the conflictive terms in simplified should yield lots of results from Taiwan as well.

    Good point anyway.

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Mar
    Tony Luce

    Everyone seems to be forgetting about VPN services like, 12VPN, etc that offer ways to get out of the GFW quite easily.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    @Tony Luce, I don’t forget it, I use them myself. There is a long discussion about this already in past posts, but the conclusion basically is: for various reasons the majority of Chinese people will not use those services.

    They are only useful to inform the minority who is already convinced (like me), but not to bring freedom to the masses.

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Mar
    Phil H

    And I continue in my lonely quest to persuade English language China bloggers that they’ve got it wrong…
    You’re right that Google’s current move isn’t creating any more freedom on the mainland internet than existed before.
    You’re wrong about this: “you cannot deal with a country like they are dealing with China” - you don’t actually know much about international diplomacy (and nor do I), so these sweeping assertions don’t help your argument.
    And you’re wrong about this: “In this field, righteous accusations and challenges normally lead nowhere but to more entrenched positions” - wrong in that Google have been very careful all along not to make any righteous accusations. There may have been accusations made by others (though I haven’t seen any apart from the true one that China censors), but Google stayed well out of it.
    Hosting in HK is a challenge, I grant you. But it’s a pretty good challenge.

    The real point of the Google thing - which you must know, you read the same blogs I do - is that Google is the first company ever to make the Chinese government see that their political intractability can harm their economic potential. Companies will walk away if you mess with them enough. That’s a message which I’m glad the CPC is getting.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    @Phil H - Please don’t group me with the “China bloggers” because all the opinions in this blog are original and I do not base them on any Chinablog consensus. Besides I read as many Chinese blogs as I do in English.

    In any case, to get to your real point: “the first company ever to make the Chinese government etc.”

    Yes, that is true, and that is exactly what Google wants you to think, and what makes Mr. Brin so satisfied. But I have some reasons to doubt the utility (not the sincerity) of this plan. More about this in next post.

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Mar

    “[Google leaders] know nothing of diplomacy and they have messed this one up from the beginning. International politics is not business, the stakes are much higher, and form is essential.”

    Yes of course, people that have spent years perfecting their management and sales style know nothing about diplomacy, but some guy that runs a blog does know about diplomacy. (please excuse the sarcasm)

    Google is currently following the law. If the Chinese government wants to block sites that is fine. If a user clicks on a link that the government blocks, then you will get blank page. If the government wants to censor the web then they can make their hands dirty.

    Economically this is a good decision. There are lots of internet users in China but still very small amount of consumers. The Western world has been promised the rise of the Chinese consumer for over 100 years. The only mass consumption that materialized was opium. The news keeps Google on the “good guys” side. Have you noticed that in every article they have some spokesperson from Microsoft saying how they wills they will stay in China no matter what.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    @Joe - Your sarcasm is dumb, but good try.

    I have studied international relations, but even so I give you I am not an expert in diplomacy. However, unlike Brin I don’t use my company to have a voice in international politics, so I think we should stick to analyze him rather than me.

    Management and Sales are different from international relations, I know it because it is my job, not because “I run a blog”. There are indeed many similarities between the two fields, but as I said the stakes are much higher in politics, and the forms are more important.

    That G is following the law is true, and that is why I say it is all in the form. Meaning that in essence what they are doing is fine, but the way they are presenting it is not.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Joe Reply:

    @Julen Madariaga,

    I am not sure if your company is as large as Google but to say that large corporations cannot have a voice in international politics is very naive. Wal-Mart has a major impact on international politics. Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell, and BP have used their muscle to affect international politics for the better of their companies. Google has every right to use their economic and public relations might to achieve their goals. Whether those goals are congruent or against the overriding US/China policy is moot.

    Companies just like states are there to protect their own self interest. I have no doubt that Google knows what it is doing. In one post on here you show the total users of the internet by location and language. It would be interesting to see the online economic activity by geographic region and language. The consumer miracle of China is not going to happen anytime soon if it ever happens.

    Maybe we all failed to notice this but Google does not want to lose face as well. This move to Hong Kong where legal ambiguity lies allows both the Chinese government and Google to keep face. China can still block the links that pop up on Google and Google can tell the bleeding-hearts in the US media that they kept their promise and have stopped censoring search results in China.

    The interesting thing about what Google is doing (and you may disagree) is that Google may be saying that the US government’s approach to China is a failure. For the last 30 years the US government has had a policy of engagement with China. It would be interesting if the Obama administration takes a different approach to China once they see that Google got what they want.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    But Joe you are not even reading what I say.

    I never said that Google doesn’t have the right to have a voice. I also never said that international corporations don’t have a voice in politics, of course they do.

    I just argue that, in my opinion, Google is doing a good thing, but it is doing it wrong. And I think this will be bad for the Chinese users and bad for the internet as a whole.

    Now, regarding the business side, that is a different discussion. But even there, I am pretty sure in the long term it will be a mistake. Chinese internet is a complex, fast changing system, and not even geniuses like Brin (no irony here) can predict what it will look like in 10 years.

    To be cut out from a massive market AND to burn all the bridges to come back looks like a bad idea to me, regardless of the short term goodwill it will give Google in the West.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Joe Reply:

    @Julen Madariaga,

    I see what you mean but I believe Google has done a smart thing. Both sides save face. The Chinese government gets what they want and Google gets what they want.

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Mar

    I agree, google’s move, though well intended, may result in more harm than good. We Americans tend to be blunt and in your face at times. The Chinese prefer a more nuanced style of interaction. They may be angry at their own government for censorship; but they are probably even more angry at Google for humiliating China on the international stage.

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. Mar

    Well, what’s done is done. Let’s not linger on the past. Yes, Google had it high drama. However, I don’t think it has worsened censorship of Chinese government by any means.

    What you are seeing now is that GoogleHK offers uncensored search results, with many entries in the list can not be clicked open, and sometimes the result page gets blocked if you try a particularly sensitive keyword. This, however, is not the revenge of the government.

    It’s nothing more than regular censorship of the massive system commonly called Great Firewall (GFW) built into China’s internet infrastructure. All internet traffics are filtered when they go through the GFW, and *anything* containing sensitive contents gets block exactly like what you are experiencing on GoogleHK. Even before Google’s formal entry in 2006, we were trying to use a cranky enduring such frequent blocking. Now it’s like going back to the good old time. No biggie.

    My point is: By igniting such a drama with Chinese government, Google didn’t actually make anything any better or worse, to itself or to Chinese government. Chinese people still have a cranky Google (filtered results and unfiltered result plus blocked pages do not have much difference). The censorship won’t get loosened. Through all this Google brought nothing but some more uncertainty and some dim hope here. That’s it. No harm, no good, everything moves on as usual, even the search market share. I don’t think Baidu’s gaining any ground after Google’s retreat.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    ##comment-21937 @Chassit: “No harm, no good, everything moves on as usual”

    I am not so sure of that. The CCP is not known for its fast impulsive reactions. Most important decisions are taken by consensus, and this usually takes time, nobody wants to act too fast and get burnt, especially now that the Expo is going to put China in the spotlight again. But I think there will be a reaction, even if it might take months to appear.

    My guess is first victims will be Gbuzz and GReader, which are 2 of the most useful tools that exist today against internet censorship. They are less high profile than Search and Mail, and the government can block both of them easily without a big international fuss. Here is what I wrote about this on Buzz:

    I just read a post by 安替 on Gbuzz thanks to @Sijia Chen who Buzzed it. The original post was blocked by the Chinese GFW and inaccessible from China.

    This just made me realize again just how powerful GBuzz is against censorship. If there is a GFWd post you want people to see, you just press a button on it (the GReader share button) and it automatically becomes available on https connection to all the users of Buzz, unblocked.

    Which is precisely why I am so pissed off that Google are kicking their own ass out of the country.

    WTF, they had so much potential to fight against evil here!! Instead they did a fucking mess, shamefully collaborating with the censors for 4 years, and when they had enough leverage to do some good influence, they throw all their efforts down the drain because of a childish fit of moral righteousness by S Brin.

    Why give up and refuse to do the hard work when they are most needed? Fuck that!

    [Reply to this comment]

  7. Apr

    Quite honesty, I think Google is doing evil. Google wants to make money, and so she goes to China for a number of years, hoping to get good revenue. Even those 1% or 2%, whatever gained market she has, Google is doing evil since the beginning.

    I am a Chinese, and I live in New York, so I think my opinion is more insightful at some points.
    Let’s take a step back, and look around the world. There are many countries in this world are censoring information, for various reasons: political, religious and culture reasons.

    US Allies, for example, Egypt is a country that censors information on the web. The annual U.S. human right report always attacks on Egypt. Has Google says anything to Egypt yet? No.

    Last week I attended a panel talk at Baruch College, and a panelist gave examples of U.S. allies that do censor information, and surprisingly, Austria was on the list.

    The only reason Google complains about China’s censorship is the political pressure from Washington D.C.

    Coming back to the original fire, which was the claim that PRC attacked and hacked Gmail accounts, which belonged to some civil rightists. It was an evidence that, U.S. government, as the biggest supporter of human rightists, outspoken to Google, pressured them to take action.

    China is now sees as a raising power among a few others, and is always portrayed as the opponents to the US supremacy. China’s Prime Minister wrote an article two weeks ago, publicly stated that China will not, and should not become that superpower the medium have imagined, for another ten, twenty years. He literally said that China is growing, but the overall living standard is low and there many problems and unrest in China.

    The White House, on the other hand, feared China’s raising. The White House has lost the absolute dominance over the Congress, and the recent polls showed a decline in support as well. She has to fight back.

    This is a drama, as some of you have pointed out.

    It is not fair to China, to be picked on. While I do agree that censorship is not a good idea, but we the Americans must learn to respect other nations. We dig too much into other countries’ businesses. Way too much.

    Google is a US based company, and we have learned business imperialism and protectionism since the first Roosevelt age, back in early 1900s. Google said US government never entered her final decision, and I must acknowledged this as a cover-up, or simply just a lie.

    When we say Iran is bad, and we acknowledge protests in Iran, we praise those who go against the government. But what about our own American people? Does China ever make public announcement say “we support the Republican on against health care reform?” No.

    Just because these countries are not as liberalize as the western, we should not and shall not make the situation even worse.

    We have heard US government attacked other networks (nation, terrorists, individuals) from the news. Should the Eastern companies walk out US like Google?

    Do not get fool by those politicians. Founders of Google hated Soviet, and they hated communists. Even India, a democracy country has censorship. Why don’t Google leave everywhere but US?

    Questions and questions. Wonder why? It is just about who is a better actor in this drama.

    [Reply to this comment]

  8. Jul

    I have to admin I ‘m using a VPN service to byass the filter.

    [Reply to this comment]

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