Three Google / China Follow-Ups

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Reader responses:

From a reader in America, about some space-and-satellite related implications:

1) China cannot be pleased about trend it confronts with "Google Earth" even archive stuff.  See for example this [missile-defense emplacements for the Beijing Olympics]:

20100310SHAHEZHENOLYMPICSAM.jpg

2) Does this spell the end of Team Selene, the only China-based team now participating in Google Lunar X Prize? Good chance this might happen now .

From a Chinese reader in Shanghai:

Saw on twitter that people were sending condolence flowers to Google's office in Beijing yesterday.... Besides the flowers, there were also cups there. Cup is now a euphemism for "tragedy", because the two words, "Bei Ju", sounds the same in Chinese.http://img.ly/HVy

But they were cleared away quickly by the police. Pic later yesterday night: http://img.ly/I1l

From a Western reader who has been living in China:

Google positions its departure as a principaled stand.  Nationalist idiots like [names deleted - JF] suggest that Google is pulling out because it lost the China market and is using "human rights" as face-saving cover while it slinks away, tail tucked between its legs.  Equally nationalist US media like the NYT just cannot stop their gasping, breathless praise of the principled sacrifice that Our Lord and Savior Google is making.

I think they are both correct - the move is both pragmatic AND principled, but spinning the story as an either/or obscures a single major fact that eclipses all other considerations on the table when Google decided to leave China, namely: Google could never possibly be allowed to win in China, and they knew it.

Here's why:
Internet search and analytics companies today have more access to high quality, real-time information about people, places and events, and more ability to filter, aggregate, and analyze it than any government agency, anywhere ever.  Maybe the NSA can encrypt it better and process it faster but it lacks ability to collect the high value data - the stuff that satellites can't see.  The things people think but don't say.  The things people do but don't say.  All documented in excruciating detail, each event tagged with location, precise time.  Every word you type, every click you make (how many sites do you visit have google ads, or analytics?), Google is watching you - and learning.  It's their business to.  This fact has yet to sink in on the general public in the US, but it has not gone un-noticed by the Chinese government.

The Chinese government wants unfettered access to all of that information.  Google, defending its long-term brand equity, cannot give its data to the Chinese government.  Baidu, on the other hand, would and does...

Now, consider the quality of the data that Baidu can furnish the Chinese government with if it owns 30% of Chinese search traffic, as opposed to 70%.  40% of your literate population is a pretty big blind spot.  This is a primary reason that Google believes it can never "win" the Chinese market as it has "won" the markets of so many other countries.  As Google gains market share, the Chinese government loses an important barometer of real-time data about what Chinese citizens are thinking about right now.  This barometer is all the more valuable in China, where the authoritarian, single-party government has precious few mechanisms like elections or an independent judiciary to address social greviences, much less gauge them.

It is for this reason that the PRC has a vested interest in granting a monopoly in search to one and only one company, over any competitor foreign or domestic.  It's all about making sure the goverment has the highest quality data about everything that Chinese citizens are doing and thinking.  Having a losing Google around made the market look nice and competitive, made indigenous Chinese companies look talented and strong, and as a bonus, occasionally provided a scapegoat for nationalists to pummel.  Google tried to engage, but eventually understood what its role was from the perspective of the PRC government.  And their bonus was to give the PRC government little black eye on the way out.

So Google has, for years, been the victim of anti-competitive practices sponsored by the Chinese government, certainly with the purpose of restricting sensitive information like photos of 6-4 [Tiananmen Square, June 4, 1989], but more importantly giving Google's market share to a cooperative local monopoly.  Most of these anti-competitive practices have been well documented, but some have been largely ignored.  Outright domain-level blocking of Google services like youtube, gmail, and docs, selective blocking based on keyword search (used to get your internet connection hosed for 5 minutes for searching for "bad" words like, "freedom" - no joke).  But there were more subtle indications that very sophisticated tactics were employed - for years I ran traffic through two browsers side by side.  One browser used an encrypted tunnel, one browser used the Chinese internet directly.  Google searches through the encrypted browser were snappy.  Google searches through the China direct browsers dragged and stalled.  The traffic was being filtered and / or bottlenecked - when the automated censors could see it.  This caused a perception of poor service within China that would give Baidu an edge gradually over time, with a low-level of detectability by anyone.  

This is just another example of the PRC's brilliant take on authoritarian government: you don't need total control, you just need effective control.

I sell this hard like a conspiracy theory, but I realize that it's probably only one of many factors that led to the pullout.  I just haven't seen it get much play.

I agree with the final point: probably not the whole story, but probably too one of the factors at play.

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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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