After four years of materially aiding the PRC government in its quest to divert Chinese web surfers away from dissident online content, Google has belatedly executed an about-face.
The change in attitude comes after the company’s Gmail service was subject to cyber attacks which targeted the accounts of human-rights activists around the globe. In retaliation, Google has said it will relax its censorship regime and contemplate closing its Chinese subsidiary.
These are, in the main, good things—although even the not-very-bright could have foreseen no small amount of inevitable unpleasantness when dealing with the autocrats of Communist China. But despite all the hoopla I do not expect Google to exit the Chinese market, even though Google is a mere bit-player in China (an also-ran next to homegrown services like Baidu and Sina). The company’s revenues in China are estimated to be on the order of $400 million; by leaving now they would effectively cede the field—and long-term growth potential—to competitors. As Google has already demonstrated an inconsistency with its corporate ethics while setting up its Chinese operations, I do not expect its late discovery of a spine to make much difference.
I rather expect the Chinese government will find an appropriate scapegoat; some general or senior bureaucrat who was “overzealous” in pursuit of public security. That official and some of his underlings will be cashiered and disgraced. The PRC will agree to a minor lessening of the censorship regime, which it will disingenuously revoke later when the furor has died down; Google gets to look like a champion of human rights, the PRC gets to look like it is making some progress on liberalising itself. Google and the PRC will pronounce themselves satisfied—if not amicable—and business will go on as usual.
But it was intoxicating to think for a few brief hours that they might actually do the right thing, and refuse to play ball with the tyrants in Peking.