By Brian Glucroft
A speech which was seen by many in the US as a strong step in the right direction or even as not strong enough was in fact a gift to the Chinese government.
Before Hillary Clinton's speech, for many Chinese students the conflict was between Google and the Chinese government. After the speech, it was Google / US government vs the Chinese government - US interests vs Chinese interests. Concerns this might be the case were earlier expressed on this site here and here.
An analysis of Clinton's words misses the point. Most of the students didn't know them. All that mattered to the students was that the US government had aligned itself with Google and now "Google" & "US government" were synonymous. The existence of such a close partnership was not at all a stretch for Chinese students to believe since they were already very accustomed to a blurry line, if any, between government and business in their own country - often associated with corruption.
The newly perceived relationship was critical. Many Chinese students assumed that for any disagreement between the US and Chinese governments whatever the US was advocating was not only beneficial to itself but was also detrimental to China. The idea that the US could be advocating something that was good for both the US and China or possibly that was even more beneficial for China was not considered a possibility.
Finally, there were a small number of students who still had positive feelings for Google after Hillary Clinton's speech.
However, many of them became disillusioned at another point - when Google chose to
move redirect its servers to Hong Kong. [Correction: the post originally said that Google had moved its servers out of mainland China to Hong Kong. In fact, it redirected some of its mainland services to servers in Hong Kong. For more information, see the author's site.] They believed, often with strong emotions, that Google had given up. The same student quoted previously expressed the feelings best:
"The Chinese government won and Google lost. Not only did they lose money and the China market, but they also lost their spirit. I cannot understand why they made this choice. It's not like Google...
It makes me feel sad and I think it is ridiculous. They lost the battle in China and the Chinese government won. Baidu is also a winner... Google made a really stupid decision...
When they first came they said 'We're Google. We're the biggest and the best at search.' Now they gave up."
The message students saw in Google's action was that if "big, powerful, idealistic" Google could not make things change, then how could they?
So, where do things stand now?
Recent reports suggest that Baidu continues to increase its strength over Google (though see here for a different perspective). The initial decline in Google's reach was not surprising given that many of Google's previous supporters did not hold it in as high regard as they once did.
But why the possible more recent decline in relationship to Baidu? There are several possibilities but two are particularly worth highlighting. The first reason is some students may have continued to hold out hope that something could still happen. After additional time without any significant events, except possibly Google's maintaining its license in China, they became convinced Google was never going to meet their expectations.
The second reason is more subtle. There has been a variety of research conducted on how factors such as brand image, visual design, etc affect the impressions people have of technology's usability and usefulness. It's a complex problem, but some studies do show a connection. For example, under certain conditions users will rate the usability of technology higher for a more visually-pleasing design than a less visually-pleasing design, even when the interaction design is held constant.