Google, China, and Chinese College Students - Part I

by Brian Glucroft

Just over a year ago in January, Google first announced its potential departure from China in a blog post called "A new approach to China" -- Google's reaction to China's attempts "to further limit free speech on the web" and to cyber attacks Google determined had originated in China. Of course, there was much discussion here. Two months later, Google announced it no longer filtered its search results for users in China and it had shifted its search services to be based on Hong Kong servers. At this blog there was rapid analysis of the new Google search experience in China.

During that period there was much debate in the U.S. about the best paths for Google and China to follow, the genuine goals of both, and the impact their actions would have on the Chinese people. I felt that there was even more that could be explored. I realized the unique moment in China provided an opportunity to gain novel insights into Chinese Internet users and other issues of interest to me, such as how information flows in China.

I made a plan to do some independent explorations. I chose to focus my initial efforts on understanding college students (I will use "college" generically to include "university" as well) because their age group is more technologically savvy, they are in the midst of an important period of growth that will impact the rest of their lives, they will soon likely have significantly more purchasing power, they are more likely to be exposed to/be engaged in the international world, and, of course, they're a key part of China's future. Other groups matter, but this was a start that I felt could have maximum value.

During several weeks in April and May of that year, I traveled to Guangxi in southwest China. I did not want to begin my explorations in any of the "Tier 1" cities of China, such as Shanghai and Beijing, because they can provide impressions that don't necessarily hold in many other parts of China. As much as possible, I wanted to try to keep the most well-known of cities from overly biasing my impressions.

While in Guangxi I spoke with numerous college students not just about the situation surrounding Google and the Chinese government (I will henceforth refer to it as "Google-ChinaGov"), but about a broad range of issues to help better understand how Google-ChinaGov fits into their lives. After leaving Guangxi, when the opportunity arose I spoke with college students in many cities across China such as Harbin, Mudanjiang, Jilin, Quanzhou, etc. I did speak to students in Shanghai and Beijing as well, but now instead of dominating my view, they were a piece of a larger picture.

By approaching this topic slowly over time, I was able to come to a deeper understanding than I may have otherwise. Sometimes, what would seem to be a completely unrelated topic, such as a discussion about the recent Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, would suddenly and unexpectedly clarify an aspect of college students' impressions of Google-ChinaGov.

What follows is not the result of a formal research study with compensated participants, a fixed experimental design, etc. It is the result of me talking to a variety of students while applying my experience in a broad range of research methods to help me maximize what was a creative, adaptive, and yet careful process of discovery.

This is what I found... Part II is here.

Based in Shanghai for over 4 years, Brian Glucroft has worked as a researcher in the user experience field for online services, electronic devices, and software companies, including Microsoft China, and has a new blog at Isidor's Fugue.