For various reasons not spending much time near a computer in the past few days. So two belated points about the still-unfolding Google/China saga, and then one reader message.
Point one: "soft power" - or lack thereof. In the immediate aftermath of Google's decision, there was assorted mild carping from Western observers about what Google's motivation "really" was. Were they escaping a bad business situation? (no), were they just trying to score PR points in the rest of the world? (not really), was there some other motivation apart from the stated one of exasperation at dealing with the intrusions and harassments inside China?
In most reasonable quarters that died out (as explained here), leaving the plain fact of strikingly widespread international exultation that someone had finally "stood up" against the strictures of the Chinese state. I'll say more in a second about that whether that reaction makes sense. But its existence and ferocity is simply undeniable. And if I were part of the Chinese leadership, I would be sobered by that fact -- and what it suggests about the limited success of Chinese "soft power" and the pent-up reaction against constant, often-credulous and exaggerated reports about China's all-conquering rise. For instance, the South China Morning Post, in Hong Kong, reported yesterday that "as the saga of Google vs Beijing continues to unfold, the central government appears to be the sole loser at first glance. By almost all accounts, this is one of its biggest public relations disasters in recent years."
China's inward-looking political leadership (as opposed to its quite internationalized financial and business class) is in fact quite bad at gauging -- or even caring about -- foreign reaction. I hope they are able to gauge this reaction clearly enough to register the moment and what it shows.
Point two: what happens next? After the moment of emotionally-satisfying showdown -- Google's saying, "We've had enough!" and announcing that it is "reconsidering" whether to stay in China at all -- comes the longer, slower process of finding out exactly who is going to do what, when. The Chinese government still has not made a significant official response (very thorough roundup of some of its minor responses here), which is probably for the best. And latest reports (in English here and here, and in Chinese here) indicate that Google has not pulled up stakes from China and is still operating as if it might have a future there.
Is that hypocritical? I don't think so: I think it's in keeping with the initial announced intention to reconsider all options. As I mentioned the first time around, I think this situation is likely to turn out either lose-lose-lose -- for Google (outside the Chinese market), for the Chinese government (publicly embarrassed, which will bring out worse rather than better tendencies), and for the Chinese public (symbolically cut off that much more from the mainstream of modern development, and with an internet ecology worse than it could be, with the absence of a major innovative competitor) -- or win-win-win for the same parties, if the government can address Google's complaints in a way that allows the company to remain. I assume that off-stage action toward that end is underway now.
Below and after the jump, a message from a non-Chinese person now living in China. It conveys the murky "practical ethics" of a case often presented in such clear-cut, black/white terms in the West. The reader writes:
"1. While I can empathize with everyone outside of China who is lauding Google, I believe it is so easy for people to praise something like this for which they make no sacrifice themselves. What I would like to ask those people is "If you were living in China would you want Google to leave now? Really?" and "Are you now not buying any products or services that benefit China's government in any way?"