Weighing in on Google’s predicament in China

By David Bandurski — Since news came of Google’s possible withdrawal from the Chinese market, we have been inundated with media requests for our views and remarks. Bizarrely, from the perspective of observers who rarely lift their gaze from China’s media terrain, the first question many journalists seem to be asking is whether Google’s move is likely to push the Chinese government into changing its policy on censorship. Say again?

Our answer: No, of course not.

There has never, not since the leadership shakeup following the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989, been any ambiguity among China’s leaders about the fundamental role of the press and of information in China, and about the need to “guide” or control public opinion in order to maintain social and political stability. And over the past several years, Internet controls have moved to center stage in the CCP’s struggle to control public opinion.

There is no bluff to call in Google’s case. China will, as Jonathan Zittrain said on BBC News this morning, “show Google the door.”

[ABOVE: Google's possible departure from China gets big play on the front page of today's Southern Metropolis Daily, one of China's more outspoken newspapers.]

The Reuters news service has now reported the inevitable story, citing a statement from the Information Office, the external voice of China’s government and a core body taking charge of domestic Internet controls:

In a statement posted on the State Council Information Office website, cabinet spokesman Wang Chen warned against pornography, cyber-attacks, online fraud and “rumors,” saying that government and Internet media have a responsibility to shape public opinion.

Moving on from the issue of press freedom in China — which is shot through with disingenuousness on both sides (Did we ever seriously believe Western corporations would unbalance the equation in China?) — there are some interesting questions floating in Chinese cyberspace about how Google was perhaps singled out for attack for activities in China (such as alleged copyright violation) that have arguably been par for the course for years. [The print version of the editorial is HERE].

In the following editorial, writer Feng Lei (冯磊) writes in Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily, that if Google’s exit from China is about more than simple market pressures, then Chinese “have more to reflect on than just Google China.”

Wink wink.

A full translation of Feng’s editorial follows:

Google’s pullout, a game with many losers
By Feng Lei (冯磊)
January 14, 2010

Google has announced through a [corporate] weblog that it is preparing to withdraw from the Chinese market. This news has struck many web users dumb with astonishment. For some time now, China’s search engine market has been balanced in a state of “70-30″ (三七开). Baidu has held a 70 percent market share; Google has held around a 30 percent market share. This share [of the China market], I hear, accounts for less than one percent of Google’s global market share.

As web users, how should we understand Google’s sombre departure? Has this giant truly lost heart over the Chinese market, this piece of the cake? Is its departure for economic reasons, or the result of institutional factors? If the reasons were purely economic, then everyone might feel a sense of gratification — through more than a decade of hardening ourselves [in the market], our domestic Internet industry has chalked up enormous progress in terms of development capacity and management know-how, to the point that even Google has been knocked from its perch. How could we not say that this is a sign of the advancement of Made in China?

On the other hand, if Google has other reasons for exiting [the China market] — for example, institutional strictures or other factors — well then, we have more to reflect on than just Google China.

What is the ideal situation that should prevail in the arena of business competition? Without a doubt, first and foremost is an environment characterized by fair competition . . . Put another way, if Google’s departure is strictly about commercial factors, then this affair would hardly elicit a sigh.

But clearly, things are not so simple. There are many Web users in China who have let out sighs.

Intellectual property protections in China have always been the subject of much criticism in the world. Look at the sharing of information (including online books), for example. Sina’s “Sharing Warehouse” (共享资料库) has consistently permitted Web users to freely upload and download [book content]. Of course, this behavior is in accord with the nature and spirit of the Web. However, it was Google whose electronic library faced attack for operational reasons from the China Writer’s Association, the China Written Works Copyright Society and Internet users. Obviously, the issue of copyright violation needs to be pursued. But there is a fierce tendentiousness about the way we Chinese have applied different standards [to different companies] on the question of copyright.

A number of major Web portals in China have all along adopted an almost free-for-all approach to the provision of works from writers. These naked acts of infringement helped to make these major Web portals what they are, and at the same time posed a major challenge to the commercial subsistence of newspapers and other traditional media. No one in China has raised a finger about these unfair methods of competition.

Moreover, we can see from the [copyright] violations committed by the major Web portals and the controversy over Google’s digital library that some are still being shielded from their own wrongdoings.

Without the availability of the Google search engine, what will the market look like? Some news has said that Yahoo! has welcomed the news of Google’s withdrawal. Well then, can we suppose Google’s actions might invite similar decisions by others? And what would a Chinese Internet look like without the likes of Google and Yahoo!?

Does Google’s exit mean Baidu will be left as the lone, massive player? Particularly intriguing is the question of whether Google’s departure will become a model or example for other international Internet operators to follow.

Without a doubt, Google’s departure [from China] is a game no one can expect to win. A couple like Google not only serves as a technology leader in China’s domestic market, but also, by virtue of their presence, has a “catfish effect” [raising overall performance in the industry]. Without this presence and effect, there will be a definite impact on the development of the industry domestically.

Naturally, as a corporate entity, Google should undergo its own process of self-reflection. As an “overseas competitor”, aside from its the mission of perfecting its own products, [Google] should have understood China’s system and concepts, and the invisible rules that pertain everywhere in China. These are all, in fact, necessary homework.

Another extremely important issue, of course, is how exactly what posture and frame of mind this China and this Chinese market, which are actively integrating into the world economic system, should take in facing competition from others.

Clearly, this game has no winners.

[Posted By David Bandurski, January 14, 2010, 3:27pm HK]

[Frontpage image by Maxwell96 available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.]

18 Comments to “Weighing in on Google’s predicament in China”

  1. [...] still confused about what exactly happened, there is some excellent discussion and analysis at the China Media Project and a very useful list of many other resources available at The China [...]

  2. [...] David Bandurski at China Media Project, “Weighing in on Google’s predicament in China.”Bandurski nicely surveys some of the media reports that have been written about Google and China [...]

  3. [...] (from a Chinese tweet, translated by a commentator on the CMD) [...]

  4. Narisa says:

    Aren’t cyber-hacking attacks illegal in China, too? Also, will there be a Chinese government investigation in to this because that is a very serious offense and further tarnishes the Chinese market?

    Frankly, I think Google as well as Yahoo should pull out of the mainland and focus their energies and resources on the rest of world. Media control is one of the Party controls, so why become an instrument for the Party which further makes the business environment difficult and unfair? Also, there is the copying problem and the legal costs that are tied to doing business there that it doesn’t seem worth it. Creative ideas and coveted technology will only be stolen without fair recourse in China.

  5. Michael says:

    I agree. There is no bluff to call. China will not change its censorship and information management policies if Google pulls out. China, will, however, become grow even further apart from the western world in regard to the internet. There is now almost a voluntary apartheid system for the internet, in which Chinese netizens choose or are ‘encouraged’ to use different search, blogging, social networking and online video sites to the rest of the world.

  6. Douglas says:

    I was reading a FT story on my Kindle on the way to Shantou this morning and I read one reporter’s analysis that Google was calling China’s bluff. I said the same thing you are saying, there is no bluff to call. Simple.

  7. Christoph says:

    “But the question we are all asking ourselves for 2 days already is: WHY on earth did G do that?”

    Is the answer simply that they decided it is not “googley” to be on the Chinese market with the rules of the game set by the CCP?

    Google had to face some image problems in recent months. Maybe they simply figured that it pays off better to strengthen their “don’t do evil” reputation in “the West” than to be number 2 in China and risk further deterioration of their reputation elsewhere.

    This might make sense from a business perspective. If so, it would highlight the potential power of “symbolic capital” and norms on international business corporations.

  8. tclb says:

    Google pulling out of China is no big deal. Conversely, is the U.S. search market less competitive without Baidu’s presence?

    From cost of doing business perspective, it may be cheaper for Google to pile all their Chinese contents onto google.com – do a search in Chinese on the “English” google.com and you will get your Chinese results.

    Why have google.cn and have to implement all these censorship rules to comply with Chinese laws? Keep everything on google.com and let the censorship work be carried out by the Chinese government.

    This pulling the plug on google.cn is a publicity stunt to shun the negative sentiment Google has been getting, especially as of late in Europe.

    The miscalculation part on Google is that it disrespects Chinese laws to a huge segment of the population on this planet. Google taking on the Chinese government politically shows how cocky this company has come. I predict this Drummond to be booted at some point in Google’s future if Google is able to remain as strong a company as it is today.

  9. K says:

    @Tait: remember that only those who know how to jump over the “GFW” (Great fireWall) can tweet–so there is a bias toward liberal/pro-democracy sentiment in the Chinese twittersphere..

  10. [...] the 30-35 percent, compared to its major domestic competitor Baidu. Nevertheless, as noted in the Guangzhou’sSouthern Metropolis Daily, translated by the China Media Project, China counted only for one percent of Google’s results. Getting internet traffic, or [...]

  11. Tait says:

    I was translating some of the Chinese Twitter comments. I was quite surprised by the number of comments that were positive towards Google!

    One user posted something like “Baidu it and you’ll know, Google it and you’ll know too much…”

  12. kailing says:

    Agree with Daxiongben, and the article. For me is Google for searching and Baidu for downloading mp3. I even recommend it to my foreign friends who do not understand chinese back in my country; so easy so convenient to download, and no P2P legal thing. An almighty Chinese company puts the MP3 at your door; Thanks!.

  13. Ivan says:

    the reason of all this is that GOOGLE.CN has suffered a large scale attack over it’s Gmail servers which was targeting Freedom Activists Accounts, the attack came clearly from the chinese government, so that actually pissed them of

    sincerely, Ivan, Anti communist activist from Eastern Europe

  14. [...] Weighing in on Google’s predicament in China (di David Bandursky, HK Media Project) [...]

  15. DAXIONGBEN says:

    @ULN Most likely is that this was also an inside job – Google may have been facing not just hacking of emails with inside help but also theft of intellectual property which has made it decide that they will not follow the path of the other corporations here that will accept anything in order to make some pennies in the chinese market.
    Given that Google has decided that it would rather protect its user and property base over commercial panderings I think this is a very brave move. A lot of good would come if others also went home.

  16. [...] er naivt at tro, at Google kan presse den kinesiske regering, skriver David Bandursky fra China Media [...]

  17. [...] Weighing in on Google’s Predicament in China [...]

  18. Uln says:

    Completely agree.

    But the question we are all asking ourselves for 2 days already is: WHY on earth did G do that? It doesn’t make sense from a pure business perspective. From an ethical perspective perhaps, but then why now, after years of following the governments directives? G knew perfectly long time ago that this kind of hacks were happening in China, the reason given in their blog is not understandable to me.

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