Google and China: The Two Big Unknowns

How will the latest round of the Google-Chinese government showdown end? (Google's announcement from last night here; other Atlantic interpretations here and here.)

Honestly, it is impossible to know. That is because each side faces a big choice.

On the Chinese government side, the question is: Do they have any incentive to step back from the brink and accept Google's cosmetic change as a real change of heart or behavior? Google's cosmetic change, in essence, is to stop automatically routing users from the Chinese mainland site to the (uncensored) Hong Kong-based site Instead, the mainland home page will now have a link which users must click to be taken to the Hong Kong site. Although the results Google gives on the Hong Kong site are not "filtered," they must pass through the Chinese "Great Firewall" on their way back to users in the mainland.

If the Chinese government is looking for a way to resolve the fight, play nice internationally, reduce complaints that it is becoming a hostile environment for foreign businesses, etc, it could decide to view this step as "compliance" with Chinese law. But if, on the other hand, the government is looking for a way to rub Google's nose in the consequences of its defiance and generally assert its refusal to be swayed by outside tut-tutting, it could decide to look through the ruse and revoke Google's license to operate in China, which is due for renewal very soon. (Below: the new Google.CN home page, with link to Google Hong Kong.)


On Google's side, the question is: if it comes to an all or nothing choice about operating in the Chinese market -- "all" meaning genuine compliance with Chinese censorship laws, "nothing" meaning pulling out altogether -- are they prepared, really, to close down all their operations? All 500+ engineers in the mainland? All of the advertising, mobile, and other business operations that have little directly to do with search? When Google first announced this decision, it appeared they could have it both ways: international acclaim for taking a stand for free expression, but still a significant premise in the fastest-growing information market on earth. If they have to choose, which way will they go?

At the beginning of this controversy I quoted a friend in China who said that this could end up as a "win-win-win" situation, for Chinese Web users, Google, and China's technological development -- or "lose-lose-lose," depending on subsequent steps. As a betting man, I am now leaning toward lose-lose-lose. But it will depend on the way these two questions turn out.

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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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