A Conversation around Google and China

I began a brief e-mail conversation recently with my colleague in the UK, Graeme Codrington, around the China v Google story. Or Google v China, depending on who you side with : ) I thought I’d take it online with Graeme, in case there are other voices that would like to weigh in on this very interesting unfolding story?

For those who aren’t in the know, very simply, Google has accused the Chinese government of hacking into the Gmail accounts of Chinese activists to get hold of confidential information. In light of this, Google has effectively decided not to play ball with the Chinese government any longer. (Read here for a more detailed round up)

Effectively it’s a clash of two worlds, two powers, two philosophies, and two of a number of other things.

  • China represents the old world. Google the new world.
  • Google is the heavyweight in the virtual world. China the heavyweight in the real world.
  • China subscribes to a more closed command and control philosophy. Google to a more open invite and participate philosophy.

For a really quick and easy read that pulls this sort of thinking together, read this Harvard Business Review Blog entry.

The quest for monopoly, monopsony, and control. That’s yesterday’s high ground, and China’s focused like a laser beam on it. China’s moves are the textbook stuff of b-school’s blackest arts. Through larger distribution, fiercer litigation, greater exclusivity, cheaper and faster production, a bigger cash pile, advantage is gained.

But the high ground has shifted. The new high ground is an ethical edge.
It’s not about having more; it’s about doing better. It’s not about protecting exports, pressuring buyers and suppliers, price discriminating against the powerless, and programming consumers to buy, buy, buy — it’s about making people, communities, and society authentically better off. It’s not about caring less — but caring more. It’s not about ruthlessness. It’s about mindfulness.

Of course the story is in it’s infancy. Of course there’s much skepticism that surrounds it. For example Google has been here before and didn’t respond like this, so why now?  Google also derives only 2% of it’s income from China, so taking a stand that may lead to them having to pull out of China isn’t as costly, as say, Microsoft or Intel.

My fascination with the story centers mostly around the stand off of these two world powers. Each starting from a very different place, but building towards what could be a spectacular case study for all of us. I even wonder if it has the potential to shape how we relate to each other in the future?

My question is, will Google have the courage to take a firm line and keep it?  And possibly a little more complex, is this stand-off the equivalent of what the Berlin Wall was for Russia and the US? Only this time it’s a virtual wall. And if so, what are the consequences to people in China, and people outside of China?

6 thoughts on “A Conversation around Google and China”

  1. So, as Barrie said, we’ve been having a conversation. With all my heart, I want to believe that Google – which has rapidly become the thing of myth and legend, and in every business school’s list of case studies of “great places to work” – will stand ethically true. It would be a dream come true that a huge, international company, with the spotlight on it, would truly take an ethical stance. And, I would love for it to be successful. It would prove true everything we say at TomorrowToday.

    I just can’t believe that it will happen now.

    There are over a billion people in China – most of whom are hoping to move quickly into middle class and the Internet age. There are 300 million existing Internet users in China, and Google has about a 25% share of the search revenue market. So, while it doesn’t account for much of Google’s international revenue, it is a market with HUGE potential.

    My (cynical) view is that Google is doing two things here. One, it is getting a ton of free publicity – I think they planned that. (If not, then why the timing right now? Why not before the Olympics last year? Why at the start of a new year?). Two, they’re trying to put pressure on the Chinese government. This I can support. China needs to get with the programme on human rights and related issues, and the attention now on them is a good thing. Google has realised this is a bigger battle than one corporate versus one government. If they’ve been deliberate about this, I think it’s genius and well judged. They should be supported.

    I suppose, therefore, they are acting ethically – in a way. But, I just can’t see them pulling out of China. I hope they don’t have to do so – I hope China backs down. There’s a long way to go on this story.

  2. PS – just noticed that our “related posts” plugin picked up a similar article I wrote about a year ago – worth reading again: http://www.connectioneconomy.com/2009/07/07/can-i-clean-your-clock-why-china-must-wake-up-to-clean-power/

  3. I remember this article that you posted on, by Thomas Friedman.

    I see the Google v China spat has entered the next round (as FastCompany suggest) China is now outlining it’s position from a legal standpoint and Google has delayed the launch of their phone Nexus One. While I do share your slightly cynical perspective that Google surely can’t pull out of China (or wont), delaying the launch of the Nexus has financial implications. Perhaps this is larger than we imagine in terms of how far Google is prepared to go.

    But here’s a new question for you Graeme: we can explore the impact that a Google pull-out / throw-out will have on Google, but what’s the impact on China. For the sake of this, let’s assume that Google chooses, or has to leave. How does this impact China, or more accurately, the people of China.

    In a world in which Google is ubiquitous, what happens when a government puts up the Great Wall of Fire? (Firewall – get it?) Google has become far more than a search engine. It’s a platform, it’s a life line, it’s storage, it’s application, it’s, well it’s so much. And yes there are other products/services out there, but one of the reasons it’s all worked so well is that we’ve had the super giants in Microsoft and in Google.

    While the people of China have the like of Baidu, what happens when they have that, and the rest of the planet has Google?

    FastCompany Update can be found here – http://www.fastcompany.com/blog/kit-eaton/technomix/google-vs-china-round-2-china-underlines-its-laws-google-stops-android-roll?partner=homepage_newsletter

  4. Nice questions, Barrie.

    Firstly, some hotshot programmer will quickly come up with a similar set of products for the Chinese market, capture it and provide basically the same services as Google. So, from a computer use perspective, I wouldn’t have thought there would be much of a loss.

    That could create two competing platforms in the future (remember Beamax vs VHS, or now DVD vs Blu-ray?). That wouldn’t be good for anyone, in my opinion. Unless the two platforms spoke to each other.

    But, as you rightly hint, it’s more than that. Google is even more than you state it to be. Google is an icon. Google is the picture of the new world of work. Agree? What would happen if you got a phone call from Google head office that said something like, “We’d like you to come and work for us” – how long would you have to think about it? Not long, I guess! Google represents the way we want to work. And so this must be a blow to those Chinese people who see themselves as heading into a connected future.

    From a freedom perspective, let’s hope it adds fuel to their fire to get and do something about it. China cannot stay disconnected from global trends forever.

    This is an interesting story, and I think it will have huge implications.

  5. Barrie says:

    I don’t know if you picked this article up? It’s from FastCompany (http://ow.ly/15kQN ) and it’s about China arresting a ‘Hacker School’ in China. Of course the article suggests the timing is perfect from a PR perspective in the Google/China engagement, but it’s also worrying that one ‘Hacker School’ has attracted the large audience it has in terms of people wanting to learn how to hack.

    As the article suggests, it’s just one school, in one country. How many are out there, and what are we ‘breading’?

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