What’s Google really doing in China?

January 13th, 2010 | by Alfred Siew

Scenic sightseeing tours – not tanks making minced meat out of hapless civilians – are the results you will find if you do an online search for “Tiananmen Square” or “Tibet” while in China.

Propaganda, not reality, is what you get when looking for information behind the Great Firewall of China, so goes the Western view of China’s Internet censorship regime.

Thus, Google’s threat today to pull out of China altogether and to provide a search that is unfettered by the communist government’s censorship regime, has been greeted by some Western commentators as a good thing for freedom of speech in the awakening giant.

Question is: are things that simple? Dig deeper and you will find that this story of Google versus China has a lot more questions than answers.

Firstly, Google’s power to influence the freedom of information or speech in China is questionable. If you have been to China and understood a little about its control of information, you will know that it is indeed not hard to search for facts on Tiananmen Square or Tibet.

Sure, when you type Google.com, you are redirected to the censored Google.cn site. This is the site that gives you the sightseeing tours when you search for the censored items.

However, most Chinese, and I mean people who are interested in these events, know how to bypass this. At the bottom of the page is a Google.com link, which takes you to the international Google search engine. Here, type in “Tiananmen” and “Tibet” and you will find what you want to know about tanks rolling over civilian demonstrators in Tiananmen in 1989 and Chinese troops taking control of Tibet in 1950.

I know because I tried this while in China a few years ago, on the advice of a Chinese journalist. Everyone knows this, she joked to me.

I’m sure Google knew this too. With a market share of just 31 per cent of the Chinese market, trailing the local Baidu.com’s 64 per cent, you wonder how much impact the American search giant really had on China’s censorship.

If freedom of speech, or a broader fight against China’s cyber-bullying, was its aim, what good would it do to pull out of China altogether? The communist regime could simply censor Google.com altogether, making the flow of information even tighter.

Which brings us to the question: what exactly does Google aim to get out of this move, by politicising the issue?

If it wants to highlight that China’s hackers have tried to target its Gmail users, as it did on the blog post announcing its startling move, then there are surely better ways. One might be to take it to its lobbyists in Washington to press the Chinese government to prevent future attacks.

Some observers might feel that Google, a company that professes to “do no evil”, is simply doing what it feels is right, possibly after all channels of redress with the Chinese authorities have been exhausted.

Yet, let’s not forget Google was, like many other prominent US companies in the past, so ready to bow to the might of the billion-strong market when it entered the Chinese market in 2006. Pragmatism, in the form of advertising dollars from the biggest market in the world, ruled the day then.

Thus, for Google to do a U-turn today on the grounds of a higher calling – human rights – is indeed surprising, even unbelievable. There could very well be a lot more behind this story than we are told.

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