1) Sky Canaves of the WSJ in Beijing has saved me a lot of time (and done readers a favor) by producing a catalogue of the biggest "misstatements and misunderstandings" people have promulgated about this situation. She starts with the most preposterous: that Google deliberately picked an extremely public fight with a notoriously thin-skinned government, merely to distract attention from its commercial struggles in a market where it enjoys "only" a 35% share. That Chinese officials and "netizens" would claim this is understandable. The Westerners who took it up reveal their preference for the counter-intuitive and "clever" rather than the believable.
2) Speaking of counter-intuitive, the Wall Street Journal's editorial page has weighed in on this subject in a way I agree with. The editorial is here, it is well worth reading, and it raises a cautionary note to which I'll return in point #5.
3) Two of the developments to date should not be surprising: the silence of the Chinese government, which is at its weakest in decision-making under time pressure; and the jubilation among some in the West, which I think reveals a pent-up reaction to endless stories about China's rise and perhaps to recent Chinese government overreach. To me the more surprising -- and significant -- reaction is the clearly divided reactions within China, with some people reacting with nationalistic anger at Google's insult but others taking the daring step of bringing flowers to the Google office etc. An expat friend who has lived in southern China since the 1990s sent me this note:
"I just had an interesting comment from a Chinese person - 'do you think
Google will desert us?' That person is not an activist but a very
proud Chinese person in their 30's who's living the China dream but
also a good global citizen. When I asked why would it matter they said 'Google is like a symbol it's our connection to the outside world.' that
person has an MBA from a top European University."
Reminder for the four thousandth time: China is a big, diverse country with a very diverse range of internal opinion.
4) One item left off Sky Canaves's popular-misconception list is the idea that Google suddenly snapped out of an "ethical coma" and realized that they had "been evil" all along simply by operating in China. Or, as a related point, that Google was willing to antagonize the Chinese government to atone for the bad image was getting for being in China at all.
I understand the ethical argument for Google's never having entered China in the first place, even though I disagree with it. The case is that obeying Chinese government orders about which words to "filter" from searches was too great a compromise. (On how the filtering works, see this article from 2008.) My counter argument is based on having seen people use Google all across China. Beyond any doubt, its presence has made more ideas and information available to more people than would otherwise have been the case. Is that an ideal arrangement? No. But -- like nearly every other foreign company, university, government, and international organization -- Google calculated that it would do less "evil" by engaging in China than by maintaining its "purity" and cutting a billion people off.
The calculation has apparently changed because of new harassments and intrusions by (or blessed by) the Chinese government. But that does not mean the arrangement was "evil," unethical, or wrong from the get-go.
5) As soon as we talk about ethics, we're left to think about consequences. What happens after Google is so roundly cheered for taking so clear a stand? China will still be there; many of its people will hunger for outside information and most will aspire to modernization. What is the way out of this that does the least overall damage to Google and the people who once relied on its services inside China? That is the question taken up here (I have met a number of the Google-China employees shown in the pictures) and the WSJ editorial as well. As that editorial says:
"it's worth remembering that this is a lose-lose-lose scenario. The most
likely outcome is that Google loses access to an important market,
Chinese customers lose access to its services, and the government loses
The next step is to find some way to reduce the number of losses -- including, yes, for the Chinese government, since (believe me) absolutely no good will come to anyone anywhere from the government's feeling shamed, humiliated, or newly insecure. It is emotionally satisfying to see the Chinese government thrown off balance after its recent repressive moves. That won't make things better for most people in China.
Next up, over the weekend: considerations of what the future steps, more- and less- promising, might be. A promising indicator in this direction will be if the story starts receding from the front pages. A discouraging one will be if the US government gets in the middle of the dispute and makes it an America-Chinese showdown of national power. More next time.