Google is saying it is ready to pull out of China if it is not allowed to offer uncensored internet access following what it says was a sophisticated cyber-attack originating in China and attempting to hack the Gmail accounts of Chinese activists.
It’s a highly unusual slap in the face for the Chinese government, who I think must have been completely unprepared for such an announcement. Their lack of any real official response on what is now day 2 of the story says to me that they are still wondering how to approach it. They simply cannot have been expecting such a daring, aggressive and unilateral escalation.
A lot is being written about this, so I’ll restrict myself to the hazier lines of what I think is broadly going on.
Google apparently doesn’t make much money out of its China operation, which makes it an awful lot easier to take a principled stand – but the company is still doing the right thing.
More importantly, it’s the first public rebuke a big company has given China, which until now may have believed it could add insult to injury in almost all of its dealings with foreign companies, knowing that those companies drooling over the size of the Chinese market will bend over backwards and accept almost any conditions in order to get a foothold.
There’s no hard evidence that the Chinese authorities were behind the hack, but the fact that the hackers were trying to get into activists’ email accounts is pretty suggestive.
However, it’s the worst fight China could end up in. If China is the world’s biggest market, Google is the world’s biggest internet company in terms of profile. Google practically IS the internet – and the Chinese have fallen in love with the internet in a big way, partly because it’s a forum for them to express themselves directly on.
China has been clever at using nationalism to get young smart Chinese onside in any kind of spat with a foreign entity. There were demonstrations outside Carrefour supermarkets in China after the Olympic torch fiasco on Paris in 2008.
But there have been demonstrations outside Google China’s offices of a very different nature – a candlelit vigil, flowers, cards with farewell greetings, many of them university students, according to the China Daily newspaper. Guards at the Tsinghua Science Park are reportedly now banning people with flowers from entering the park.
It may be that most Chinese internet users don’t use Google much anyway and won’t pick up on the story. But those that do – the young, educated and successful, generally touted as those who have benefited most from recent government policy and who are therefore among the most supportive of the government – may feel conflicted in their identification with both Google, representing their brave new world, and the government, their nation.
This possible shift in perception is illustrated by Twitterer @hecaitou, who wrote: “After Google leaves China, the world’s top three websites on Alexa —Google, Facebook and Youtube are all blocked in China. This is not an issue of Google abandoning China, but one of China abandoning the world.”
And that’s not the message China wants to be sending to its people, who are thrilled with the country’s growth and opening up. At the same time, China can’t appear to be being dictated to by a foreign company. It’s going to be very interesting.
[Update: in its first official reaction, China told companies to cooperate with state control of the Internet on Thursday, showing no sign of giving ground on censorship after U.S. Internet giant Google threatened to quit the country. There was no mention of Google by name. Reuters]
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