China and Google: what we know

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 face."

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.

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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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