Google vs. China: War of Words
The controversy sparked by Google’s threat to pull out of China is really heating up. Here are two interviews that give my perspective on this issue. For those who are interested in the topic, I highly recommend listening to both because they cover very different ground.
The first is a podcast presented by the American Chamber of Commerce in China. It focuses on the key issues from a global business perspective, emphasizing the impact on China’s business climate and economic ambitions. You can check it out here.
The second is a radio show I did this morning on China Radio International. You can listen in or download it here. The program gives a good idea of the assertive new line China is taking in the Google dispute, and how the government is hoping to define the issue in the minds of Chinese people.
The original argument that got a lot of play in the Chinese media was that Google’s threatened departure was merely an excuse to pull out of a market where it has been doing badly. I was somewhat surprised that hardly anyone tried to make that case this morning — it was hinted at, but perhaps because most well-informed observers find it unconvincing, no one pressed the point.
Instead, especially following Hillary Clinton’s high-profile speech this past week, the focus has shifted towards portraying Google as a tool of the U.S. government, which is trying to bully China. The argument, essentially, is as follows: (1) all countries, including the U.S., restrict the Internet, (2) China’s restrictions reflect China’s values and protect its national integrity, (3) the U.S. is a big hypocrite and using the concept of Internet freedom to humiliate and undermine China.
Never mind that banning child pornography is not quite the same thing as banning political debate, or that spying on violent terror cells is not quite the same as spying on foreign investors. Such leaps of logic are unlikely to persuade many Americans, but they resonate deeply in China. The only thing that gets a young Chinese netizen more riled up than the Great Firewall is any kind of perceived foreign insult to China. They may hate censorship, but they are fiercely (sometimes rabidly) proud of their country and will close ranks behind it if that becomes the issue.
Unfortunately, Hillary’s speech — while well intentioned — played right into that storyline. Of course, the U.S. government had to get involved on some level because the cyberattack on Google raised serious security concerns. But to turn Google’s decision into some kind of morality play — American virtue vs. Chinese oppression — robs it of its real impact, that actions speak louder than words. Google has decided it is no longer worth doing business in China. Many other foreign companies in China shares its concerns. Whether you agree with it or not, Google’s decision will have consequences. It is up to the Chinese to decide what to make of those consequences.
I’m struck by the fact that, among the Chinese guests this morning, there is a stubborn refusal to believe that Google might actually leave China. Surely Google is bluffing, or playing at some game. As I pointed out in my first blog post on this subject, the day Google’s announcement came out, that the bedrock assumption in China has always been that no one could possibly be willing to walk away from the Chinese market. One of the radio guests actually said that today. It’s a classic case of cognitive dissonance: when the evidence contradicts a long-held belief, you stick with the belief over the evidence, and attempt to rationalize.
Now, it’s possible that China and Google will work out their differences — I’m not making any predictions. But most people I’ve talked to — leaders in the business community here and journalists who have covered business in China for a long time — believe that Google will go. And when that happens — if it happens — reality will gradually set in, for Google and for China. “You’ll be sorry!” the Chinese shout after Google. And maybe that’s true. But what if it’s not?