Google's threat to pull up stakes and leave China following a major hack attack from within the country has rekindled controversy over its decision four years ago to enter the China market even though it was compelled to abide by Chinese censorship laws. The reasons it was right to enter China then are the same reasons it would be wrong to leave the country now.
The attack was reportedly aimed at exposing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists, a matter of deep concern for all of us, and especially for anyone with business or other interests in China. Google's response was to announce that it will no longer censor search results on its Chinese search site, Google.cn, and that it's considering pulling out of the country altogether. The Wall Street Journal's take on the development is almost spot-on:
Google deserves praise for having a bottom line, but it's worth remembering that this is a lose-lose-lose scenario. The most likely outcome is that Google loses access to an important market, Chinese customers lose access to its services, and the government loses face. Google's decision in 2006 that entering the mainland market was a net positive for information flows was well reasoned. The tragedy is that the Chinese government became so aggressive in its repression that this is no longer the case.
I say "almost" spot-on because of that last sentence. The assertion that it's no longer the case that Google's presence in China is a net positive for information flows is wrong.
What I wrote on this topic in 2006 is every bit as valid today as it was then:
Many in the U.S. will cheer that [anti-Google] rhetoric, completely oblivious to its tragic shortsightedness. They'll echo the outcry [in opposition to Google's entry into the China market and agreement to abide by Chinese censorship laws] without recognizing that we simply can't be content with changing the lives of the 100 million Chinese who have the incalculable good fortune of gaining access to the Internet. They'll be incapable of appreciating the fact that we need to change the lives of 1.3 billion Chinese. And the best way to make that happen is to engage China and to expose the Chinese people to whatever positive Western influences we possibly can. We don't need to agree with that nation's government to abide by its laws, any more than we need to agree with our own government to obey it.
The Wall Street Journal cited research by China IntelliConsulting Corp., which found that 30 percent of the 338 million Chinese Internet users who use search engines log on to Google at least once a week. The research firm estimates that there are approximately 40 million frequent Google users in the country. Punishing those people for the actions of their government is unfair and unconstructive. Any company with an online presence faces the threat of a hack attack by government operatives and others in China and in any number of other countries, regardless of location. So pulling out of China is unlikely to have any demonstrable impact on Chinese hacking efforts.
Google was right to take a strong stand in the matter, and the U.S. government should take an equally strong stand in support of Google and any other U.S. company that's victimized by Chinese hacking. But taking its ball and going home would accomplish nothing, and would be cheered by no one in China other than those who want to prevent the Chinese people from being exposed to Western influence.