The Wikileaks documents released in the past few days revive that question, first posed in 2006 when the search engine entered the world’s largest market, by revealing some of the hardball tactics that Beijing’s communists are using to bring Mountain View’s capitalists to heel.
One Google executive, worn down by three years of Chinese harrassment told a U.S. commercial diplomat that the company might consider ” leaving China,” a comment quoted in this July 2009 cable. With even co-founder Sergey Brin expressing qualms, Google’s Chinese future seems in doubt.
The cables show how Beijing relentlessly pressurizes Google to achieve its economic and political goals.
- Use of the media: When the Chinese government charged that Google was failing to filter pornographic Web sites from its search results, there were at least 57 negative articles in the Chinese media before Google had a chance to respond. These stories have damaged Google’s brand with Chinese consumers.
- Manipulation of the private sector: When Google refused to remove a link to Google.com, its uncensored search engine, from its Google.cn site, which is censored, the government told three leading Chinese telecommunications firm to void existing contracts and cease negotiations with Google. These moves have cut Google’s share of traffic in China.
- Selective hacking. During the Chinese Communist Party’s annual meeting in 2007, Chinese hackers diverted searches from Yahoo and Google to Baidu, the Chinese search engine. For example, search for “Dali Lama” was sent to Baidu which reported it could find “no information on your request.” The cables showed that Google preferred to enlist U.S. government support rather than complain publicly about such incidents.
Senior Google executives have to decide if they can live with these realities because there is little likelihood they will cease any time soon. Google has controversially acceded to the Chinese government’s demand that it censor its China-based search engine. Google did eventually drop the Google.com link on Google.cn link but installed a prominent link to another uncensored site, Google.hk.
But in larger perspective, Google’s moves amount to a strategy of appeasement that has not deterred or impressed China. The New York Times reported this week that senior Chinese officials, initially worried that the Internet could undermine their grip on power, have concluded that “the Web is fundamentally controllable.”
So the ultimate question raised by the Wikileaks cables is: Will Google participate in (or acquiesce to) Beijing’s campaign to control the Web in the world’s largest country?
Would that be good for Google’s bottom line? Probably.
Would it be good for Google’s brand and self-respect. Probably not.
(Cross posted from World Opinion Search.)