Google, China, and Chinese College Students - Part III

By Brian Glucroft

[Previous posts for this series: Part I; Part II. Also see correction below.]

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.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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