China, It Turns Out, Values Google's Innovation More Than It Fears Its Principles

Last Updated Jul 9, 2010 11:49 AM EDT

The Chinese government renewed Google's (GOOG) license to operate on the mainland today, more than a week after a decision was originally due. The delay shows there is internal conflict over whether Google should remain while refusing to censor its search results. In the end, the Chinese decided they value Google's innovation more than they worry about its free speech principles.

A hacking incident back in January kicked off the fracas between the two parties, and for a moment it seemed that Google and China would truly go their separate ways. But as my colleague Erik Sherman points out, China is simply too big a market for Google to abandon, with more internet and mobile phone users than any other nation and growth in those areas that is truly astonishing.

Google's value to China is subtler. As Glenn Derene writes over at Popular Mechanics, "China has done a great job at developing its manufacturing base, but still lags when it comes to technological innovation." The research and development facilities that Google built in China are a draw for the nations top talent, who then filter back out and begin their own companies.

Online Google serves as an important resource as well. A survey by Nature News found that 84 percent of Chinese scientists felt losing access to Google would significantly hurt their work. "Research without Google would be like life without electricity," one scientist told Nature.

In the six months before the hacking incident disrupted relations, Google was making significant gains on Baidu, the dominant state approved search engine. China's minister of industry and information technology, Li Yizhong, made it clear China wants Google, "If you don't leave, China will welcome that; if you don't leave, it will be beneficial for the development of the Internet in China."

As I've written before, the changes Google made to their site in order to get its Chinese license renewed were completely superficial. Their mainland Google.cn homepage still acts as a redirect to their uncensored site in Hong Kong, it just requires an additional click. But that was enough for China to save face and approve a business that's so important to their growth in science and technology.

Image from Flickr user Pamhule Related Links

  • Ben Popper

    Ben Popper writes at the intersection of culture and technology. His work has been published in the NY Times, Washington Post, Fast Company, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic and many others. He lives at www.benpopper.com.