Google China. Corporate Activism.

By now most people who possess the ability to read and own a computer have heard about Google China. It’s an interesting story about dealing with a communist government that happens to control the world’s most robust (and largest by population) economy.

Google originally entered China in 2006 with a bit of trepidation. Google’s quirky mission statement, “do no evil”, along with the fact that they’re in the information distribution business, made it a tough decision to make. There was the potential for massive profits, but they didn’t want to be forced by the Chinese government to turn over information about their clients, as Yahoo! did in 2005.

So Google decided to open server in China, self-censor it, and keep all email accounts and personal registration information for Chinese users on slower servers back in the US. This was successful until the beginning of this year, when a very orchestrated attack was unleashed on Google’s US servers, apparently aimed at getting into the email accounts of Chinese activists.

Aside from the questions this brings up about a government infiltrating a private company’s business accounts lie more fundamental questions.

Google is a very strong, pointed supporter of free speech. The company originally started a Chinese search engine from US servers, with no censored materials. The site, since it operated from servers in the US, was slow. After being in service for some time, it was suddenly blocked out of China and later allowed in again after the government had gone through and censored many of the sites that it deemed inappropriate for Chinese citizens. Google then decided to make the sacrifice of entering the Chinese market and opening offices in Beijing and Shanghai for research and development. It opened and managed servers in the country, self-censored, so that Chinese consumers could have better access to its product.

There were some fundamental issues with Google’s operation in China. It never managed to become the giant in the People’s Republic that it is in the US. Its main competitor, BaiDu.com, has a corner on the market with a much more Chinese user-friendly search engine (although it looks very similar to the Google site). BaiDu also happily complies with the government regulations that Google so strongly opposes. Google never really connected with the Chinese consumer the way it connected with the US consumer. In China it attempted to gain market share by touting the same issues that won it appeal in the States. It claimed, among other things, that the service was more fair and open because it separated sponsored search results out from the rest of the user’s search. It proclaimed free speech and free access to information for all, or at least as free as possible within the guidelines of the Chinese government’s restrictive policies.

But there was and remains a flaw to this approach by Google. The Chinese people, overall, don’t really care as much about free speech as we do here in the US.

The US is a country born out of revolution for the purpose of granting free speech and some semblance of equality for all its citizens. We are a country comprised of individualistic, rebellious, adventurous ancestors who risked their lives and livelihoods, in many cases, for a chance at their own chunk of the American dream. Regardless of which country one hails from, their children will grow up in a land where they are taught by the US education system the importance of always relying on oneself, the importance of questioning authority, the vital importance of activism in government and in other aspects of its social construct. We are a society of individualist thinkers who believe in protecting the rights of the few from the oppression of the many. We celebrate individual success over national progress. We preach the underlying importance of free speech as a source of our strength.

China has 5,000 years of history. Over the past 5,000 years, the country has not experienced a revolution where a democratic government espousing the virtues of free speech and minority protections found a foothold. The People’s Republic is comprised of a society of collectivist, rather than individualist, thinkers. They do not find free speech to be a vital facet of their success or national identity. They don’t generally look at the individual standing up against the organization as symbol of greatness. They have no modern-day, communist era Rosa Parks. Even one of the communist era’s biggest anti-government protests, the Tiananmen Square incident of June 4th, 1989, wasn’t about free speech. It was an anti-government protest stemming from the death of Hu Yaobang, a government official who was more pro-democracy and anti-corruption than most of the central government’s officials. The protest was about corruption and inflation. Free speech was later advanced as well, but it was never a central theme to the protest.

As a collectivist society whose roots do not come from revolutionist, rugged individualists risking their lives and livelihoods for a piece of the Chinese dream, the Chinese have a different viewpoint on the usefulness of free speech. A lot of Americans believe two things will happen the moment they travel to China to work:

1. They will immediately be arrested if they discuss freedom of speech issues with the Chinese, because their every move will be monitored.

2. The Chinese will be interested in discussing their oppressed status, and will desire help and sympathy from us, the great American revolutionaries.

Neither of these things are true. While the internet is monitored and censored in China, and going to Google or BaiDu to look up “Tiananmen Square Massacre” will result in one’s getting closer attention from the government, people are not being locked up on a daily basis for simply trying to get information on issues of history. Should they start their own blog where the government is heavily denounced, there may be some problems. As an American, I like having the option of getting online and starting a blog about foolish actions the George W. Bush administration committed in the name of a freer world. As a Chinese citizen, I might be less inclined to do so from the outset.

This brings me to the second point. The Chinese do not feel oppressed by the government that brought them out of poverty and works tirelessly to create a better, wealthier society in which they can live and work. The central government has been good to its people overall, if you look at the last thirty years. The poverty level has gone down, purchasing power parity has gone up, and in the macroeconomic picture the country is healthier than it has ever been.

Google entered China on slogans and principles that the Chinese people cared about less than their government. It is not surprising to discover that foreign media and information distribution businesses have a hard time operating in a country that restricts their industry. It is also not surprising to discover that for the large part, the citizens of China don’t really care.

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