Google in China: Too Big to Fail?

Last Updated Feb 26, 2010 3:11 PM EST

Six weeks after they exchanged fighting words over censorship and the prospect that Google will leave China, the world's largest search engine and the world's largest country have fallen strangely silent -- a condition that leads me to suspect a deal may be in the works.

Remember that this controversy came to light on Google's blog on January 12, when David Drummond, Google's SVP,

We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China."
The precipitating events included a large-scale hacking of Gmail and other Internet sites that originated in China. Google implied (but did not explicitly charge) that this occurred with at least the knowledge, if not the active involvement, of the Chinese government.

The Obama administration, which maintains very close ties to Google's leadership, took the occasion to denounce China's censorship policies, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivering a pointed rebuke, which was quite an unusual step in the midst of attempts to improve bilateral relations with the largest U.S. creditor.

Over the past six weeks, China has steadily denied any wrongdoing and Google has not issued any further missives to modify Drummond's original post.

However, let's parse the tea leaves to determine what's up:

  • Speaking at TED, co-founder Sergey Brin clarified his company's goals: "(W)e intend to stop censoring, and you know, if we can do that, within the confines of Chinese policy, we'd love to continue Google.cn and our operations there."
  • Then he added: "I'm an optimist. I want to find a way to really work within the Chinese system and provide more and better information."
  • Asked specifically by Wired Editor Chris Anderson whether he thinks Google will stay in China, Brin replied, "I'm not going to put odds on it. I'm always optimistic, and it's not always, perhaps it won't succeed immediately tomorrow or whatnot but maybe in a year or two."
So that stands as an indication that Google remains open-minded, optimistic, and hopeful of finding a solution to the standoff.

Meanwhile, some revealing perspectives on the view on this controversy from inside China came via an unusual source, Nature, which asked elite scientists who rely heavily on Google and need continued access to it in order to continue their research:

  • "If Google -- or the Chinese government -- acts on this threat, how would scientists in China be affected? To find out, Nature surveyed Chinese researchers about how they use Google's products, and how integral it is to their research. Of the 784 scientists who responded, more than three-quarters said they use Google as the primary search engine for their research."
  • The magazine quoted Xiong Zhenqin, an ecologist at Nanjing Agricultural University in Jiangsu province, as saying "Research without Google would be like life without electricity."
  • As one of the survey respondents told Nature: "If I lose Google, it will [be] just like a man without his eyes."
Finally, a report this week in the Wall Street Journal indicated that the two parties may be re-engaging with each other:
"Google Inc. representatives are scheduled to resume discussions in coming days with Chinese officials about the fate of Google's China business, said people briefed on the matter . . . The schedule and the status of the talks, which are being picked up after a break for the Chinese New Year holiday, are unclear."
What is absolutely imperative from the Chinese perspective in this matter is an opportunity to save face. Google embarrassed China on the world stage, led the U.S. government into a confrontation with China, and laid down some strict demands from which the company says it will not retreat.

How can China find a face-saving way to react?

There may be one option left, and that would be to distance itself from the hacking incident that was used by Google as the precipitating incident for this entire controversy.

In my view, the hacking case was simply an excuse anyway; censorship was and has always been the real issue for Google.

Note that the Chinese denied they were involved in the hacking incident; if they can go further now and actually denounce it, the two sides might find common ground on that issue. Then, though they will probably avoid the censorship discussion publicly, they might agree to move forward -- quietly -- by easing the filtering of search results over time.

Under this scenario, there will be no big announcements at all, but Chinese users, including those influential scientists, should see a gradual easing of political censorship overthe months to come, and Google will be able to remain in China.

Possibly toward that end, the Telegraph, U.K., reported that Google China is still advertising to hire new staff, although a further report indicates these jobs were posted before the controversy erupted on January 12.

Photo by Veen
Related BNET Media coverage:
Jan. 12 Google Throws Down the Gauntlet in China Over Human Rights and Censorship "In one of the most stunning developments in its remarkable 11-year history, Google (GOOG) today announced that it is prepared to shut down operations in the world's largest country, China, unless the Chinese government ends its censorship of search results there..."
image: CSmonitor.com

  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital, Salon.com, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.