Update on Google/China-ology

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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?"
"2.  Clearly, what Google did is not listed in the book of "best ways to negotiate in China".  However, what they did forces China to realize that Google has now backed themselves into a corner where they also can't afford to lose face.  It may baffle some people people in China that Google would actively create such a situation, but it is simply where things stand now and now China must factor that into the equation.  I believe that sometimes foreigners get so wrapped up in playing by the perceived Chinese rules that they are deliberately taken advantage of by Chinese....

"3.  While Google's actions wont be immediately (if ever) mimicked by other companies, I suspect many are thrilled to be able to observe the outcome of such a fascinating test case.  Obviously, both Google and China's goverment are aware of this and further complicates the picture.

"4.  One Shanghainese college student I spoke to ...felt Google should leave the country and should stay true to its ideals.  She is very aware that information is censored in China and she is embarrassed by how she imagines other countries view China - backwards and illogical.  She views China's restriction of information on the internet as one of the key signs it is very backwards and hopes that things will change.  She commented how excited she and her friends when it appeared the "China firewall" had been lifted and they could go to sites like Facebook and Youtube once more (unfortunately, just a momentary glitch in China's censorship).

"Like you've pointed out in the past about how many Chinese perceive their own country, it is beyond her that many in the US see China as a worldly superpower.   She and her friends have mannnnnny issues with the government and she at one point commented that "Shanghai's goverment is f***ing stupid*.  However, they will not publicly share such ideas because they are convinced their future careers & lives would be irreparably harmed by the government if they do so.  She even mentioned the possibility that she would simply disappear.  After living in Shanghai for over 3 years and being so impressed about how open it can be, it was chilling to hear someone so young, creative, outgoing, and seemingly "free" explicitly state these fears in such a matter of fact way.

"5.  Which leads me to say...  China is full of complexities (not sure there can be any other way when you have over 1 billion people) but one thing is straightforward - the Chinese government is not the people.  As I often said while George W. Bush was President (only somewhat tongue-in-cheek) "I deeply disagree with some of China's policies.  I also deeply disagree with and am embarrassed by some of my own country's actions.  However, Americans actually chose their leaders and empower them. At least the Chinese people can't be blamed for their government's actions."  Whatever anger and frustration others may have with China's government, there are numerous Chinese who in many ways have aspirations and ideals that match closely with people outside of China.  I recall meeting many Europeans in the past who would say "I strongly dislike the US government, but I love its people".  I can feel the same way with China.  Whatever the motivations, I hope that Google's actions directly or indirectly lead to a better future for the Chinese people....
 
"On the side...  I recently showed a friend what it was like to surf the internet on the other side of the chinese firewall (thank you for your long ago recommendation of witopia).  After showing sites with pictures and info regarding topics such as Tiananmen Square, the Dalai Lama, Falun Gong, etc my friend was in tears.  She had been very aware that China was censoring information and putting its own spin on events, but she never grasped its extent.  The next day she said to me "I hate what my country has done and feel very sad.  But I also still have a love for China.  I don't know what it is I really feel."  I told her that in this case I might be able to appreciate exactly what she was feeling and welcomed her to the world of far from perfect countries."
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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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