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Google in China

March 2010


Google is in a real muddle over its Chinese version (

Following a year or two of moaning about the censorship imposed by the Chinese government, Google announced in January that they had discovered a “targeted attack” on the Googlemail accounts of "Chinese human rights activists".  This appears to have tipped the balance, and they are threatening to withdraw from China unless they can be exempted from the local laws they don’t like.

I can’t quite decide where whether I support Google or the Chinese Government over this, but I have a sneaking feeling that I side with the Chinese, and an even stronger feeling that there is a whiff of sour grapes rising from Google, with an added hint of hubris.

For good or ill, China legally controls what their people can see online; the “Great Firewall of China” filters all overseas websites, with varying success, and domestic sites are subject to censorship.  In 2006, Google set up a website in Beijing, inside the Great Firewall.  It provides the normal Google service, but focuses on listing websites that use the Chinese language.

Google was welcomed by the Chinese authorities, who also pointed out that it would have to comply with the local laws, including censorship.  The Government provides a daily list of words for which must return no results, merely display a warning that the sites may be illegal and so cannot be shown.

Google went along with this and set up in business.  Their managers have a rather grand view of their own importance, and see themselves not merely as highly successful sellers of advertising (that’s where all their cash comes from) but also as some sort of mystical seekers of truth with a mission to provide information to a grateful world.  They imagined the Chinese would relax the censorship once they realised what a boon an unfettered Google would be; also, they expected that the people of China would rise up and demand that Google be set free.

Then, something rather unexpected happened.  The Chinese people did not take to Google much; after four years of hard work, has probably 15% or less of the Chinese search market.  This compares with their 75% share of the European and American markets. 

Google is being beaten hands down by the main Chinese search engine, so persuading advertisers to use them is more difficult than they would like to be.

This is a new experience in Google HQ, and I doubt that the rejection sits well.  Hitherto they have known only what it is like to be top dog,

What’s more, the popular reaction in China to Google’s rather self-righteous statement rubs salt in the wound; you can read it here.  

All the local social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, are buzzing with fierce criticism of Google.  Like most people, the Chinese react badly to being told by outsiders how to run their country, and Google is now cast in that unwelcome imperialistic mould.  They are not used to that sort of rebuff – they still see themselves as being part of “the people”, rather than the giant corporation they actually are.  They do not expect to be opposed in this way, by “the people”.

What is more, they risk burning their bridges.  If Google do shut up shop in China in these circumstances, there is not the slightest chance that they will be allowed back.  It just doesn’t work that way in Beijing; once gone, Google is finished there.

Rather to my surprise, I can’t help siding with the Chinese.  While I certainly don’t support the politically motivated censorship there, Google knew all about it before they arrived.  They clearly expected some sort of special treatment, just because they are the mighty Google.  Astonishing; could you imagine the fuss if a Chinese company set up in California, and asked to be excused some local laws they didn’t fancy?

The truth is, Google has blown it in China, through a mixture of hubris and naiveté.  Add to this their palpable irritation about having to obey local laws, and some unsubstantiated allegations about being attacked by unspecified sinister forces,  and I begin to suspect that they are setting up a face-saving position from which they can claim to have been “forced out” of China.  Mark my words.