As news of Google's bombshell threat to abandon its China operations spread yesterday, some Chinese citizens began bringing flowers to Google's corporate headquarters at the Tsinghua Science Park in Beijing. According to a tweet from "jason5ng32," the action caught the attention of security forces, who promptly coined a new phrase: "illegal flower donation." You can't do much better than that, if you're looking for a metaphor that expresses the Chinese government's resolve to control freedom of expression -- in any medium.
But are the Chinese flower children fools, duped by a Google public relations move? Although the initial announcement from Google was greeted with a chorus of tweeting-hallelujahs and approving blog postings from both the tech community and China watchers, it didn't take long for cynics to start questioning Google's motives. At TechCrunch, Sarah Lacy suggested that the decision had more to do with Google's disappointing business results in China, and that "Google has clearly decided doing business in China isn't worth it, and are turning what would be a negative into a marketing positive for its business in the rest of the world."
Blogging at Foreign Policy, Evgeny Morozov, a specialist in the political impact of the Internet, echoed Lacy's skepticism in "Doubting the Sincerity of Google's Threat," arguing that "Google was in need of some positive PR to correct its worsening image (especially in Europe, where concerns about privacy are mounting on a daily basis)."
Google.cn is the goat that would be sacrificed, for it will generate most positive headlines and may not result in devastating losses to Google's business (Google.cn holds roughly 30 percent of the Chinese market).
Attempting to untangle how much Google is motivated by business or public relations concerns and how much by a legitimate desire to do the right thing is tricky. And of course, Google's move doesn't have to be just one or the other. Google's uphill struggle to carve out a dominant business in China may have tipped the balance of power within the company to those who really do believe in not being evil.
But here are some additional points to consider.
First, the style in which Google announced its decision is extraordinary in the context of how foreign firms traditionally do business in China. As ImageThief eloquently put it, "Google has taken the China corporate communications playbook, wrapped it in oily rags, doused it in gasoline and dropped a lit match on it." Make no mistake: This was a calculated attempt to make the Chinese government lose face. Whatever the motives, we haven't seen anything like it before -- not from Yahoo, or Microsoft, or Cisco, or any of the other tech firms doing business in China. It is inconceivable to imagine that the Chinese government will make any concessions in response, which means Google has willingly sacrificed a foothold in the world's largest Internet market. That is not something to take lightly.
Second, in the long run, does it even matter why Google did it? Reaction, flowers aside, within China is hard to gauge, especially given China's all-too-predictable effort to censor news reports about the brouhaha. But as a purely symbolic representation of the importance of speaking truth to power, Google's brassy stance strikes a deep chord within those who care about freedom of expression and human rights. The bogus 11-year jail sentence recently handed down to activist Liu Xiaobo for "inciting subversion of state power" was an affront to civilized, democratic values, and clear proof that the Western policy of accommodation and subservience to Chinese wishes is having absolutely no positive impact. Many Americans would like to see their own government adopt a tougher stance on Chinese human rights issues, and have long been sickened at the spectacle of American corporations agreeing to behave in ways that repudiate core democratic values.
Google's decision to pick a fight with China may be a result of mixed and conflicting agendas, but it still feels good to hear someone call bullshit. And before we get too carried away by the question of whether this is some culture clash between Eastern and Western "values," let us recall that there is a long and respected tradition within China in which court officials would feel compelled to tell the emperor something he didn't want to hear. It didn't always work out so well for the critic, but that was a price some were willing to pay -- and history remembers them fondly for their bravery.