After months of talking and debating, Google finally decided to withdraw its services from mainland China. Google had announced in January 2010 that it will close its search portals in China due to the strict monitoring by the Chinese government and also because of continuous hacking. On March 22, 2010, Google decided to route the searches for mainland China from its Hong Kong portal, where it is not bound to sensor its results. But this resulted in the Chinese government’s internet filters getting into action, thus resulting in complete internet disconnection or display of error messages instead of search results.
Google’s revenue model is based on internet search and what is referred to as ‘pay per click’ or ‘pay per display’ method. So besides google and its user, this model requires a seller willing to advertise a product/content through google and ready to pay for it. In case of China it also requires the government’s approval of what it thinks people should be accessing via the use of search engines. Google had accepted these censorship regulations in China when it set shop there in 2005. The large Chinese market did work as an impetus for it to accept the rules as it hoped for large profits from the untapped markets. This optimism over China’s markets has been a driving force behind large Western companies’ China specific operations. This is different from China as production hub. This is the dichotomy of doing business in China; it is ready to become the factory of the world but its people cannot consume the same products, especially if they appear to be against the long term interests of the party. Therefore as long as the party organs design and use the internet it is fine, but if people want to use it by keeping the party/state out then there is a problem. Thus the regime remains insecure about the free flow of information to its people. Hillary Clinton’s praise for Google’s role in Iran and Georgia has also been disapproved by Beijing.
What this instance proves is that the party state is trying to remain a critical interface in the process in which the people interact with the world. One is not sounding alarm bells of structural crises here, but it shows that the party is not letting its guards down in the information age.
In this entire sequence of events, Google has played the victim card very successfully, at least to the international audience. The question to be asked is how it found it so difficult to do business in China so suddenly. If freedom of expression was the issue then other American internet service companies should have exited China along with Google. However, companies like Microsoft and Yahoo! have chosen to continue their China operations. There are reports that Google was already facing serious competition from other search companies including from the Chinese company Baidu which is highly popular inside China. Moreover, Chinese revenues were less than 2 percent of Google’s global business revenue. So it is quite possible that Google is using the loss of business to exit China but gain sympathies elsewhere through its apparently moral standpoint. Anyways, paid for content shown in Google searches is not the freedom that all its users like. For that matter, Google even scans the emails of its users to show content related advertisements. Therefore it is likely that elsewhere it uses the same technology to monitor emails to and from certain IDs for the security establishments. So Google is not exactly the best advocate of freedom of expression.
For a long time, the Obama administration has been unable to raise an issue over Human Rights inside China. It is a known fact that questioning China’s human rights policy has always rubbed the leadership the wrong way. However, the changed economic realities of the world and the visible forward stance in Chinese foreign policy over the last year have meant that the US had to keep quiet on this issue. Thus, China could get away by warning Obama not to talk on the subject before he visited China late last year and even Hillary Clinton, now a vocal supporter of Google, kept mum on human rights during her China visits. Now the involvement of an American giant, which is pro-Obama Administration, gives it a free issue to capitalize on.
On the other hand, the People’s Republic is using the US Administration’s support for Google to encourage Chinese nationalism by calling it interference in the internal affairs. Thus, something that could be a simple economic issue, has been turned into a public relations agenda by everyone who could benefit from it. So much for great power games in the age of information!