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COMMENTARY: Google's Return to China Would Represent Total Capitulation

The world’s leading internet search provider is reportedly dealing to return to China with a product that would comply with country’s strict censorship laws.

Mark Melnicoe
    Aug 04, 2018 4:15 AM  PT
COMMENTARY: Google's Return to China Would Represent Total Capitulation

It's not hard to understand why Google executives want to get the company's vaunted search engine back into China.

After all, the country has about 800 million Internet users – not much less than the entire population of North and South America combined. Chinese citizens use the web constantly to shop, read, socialize, book travel, and watch videos. It represents an incredibly lucrative market.                              

Reports surfaced this week that the world leader in online search - and one of the planet's most powerful companies - has been negotiating with Chinese leaders to be allowed back into the country. Google exited China in 2010 because of stringent censorship rules it decided it couldn't abide, largely in response to public pressure. Now it wants back in through a secret program called "Dragonfly," and, according to leaked company documents obtained by news portal The Intercept, it could return within months with an app fully compliant with China's harsh censorship.

Flash forward eight years and what has changed? Three things: a different China, a different Google leadership and, unfortunately, a much harsher China.

China's online population has swelled more than 60 percent during those years, presenting a giant, tempting single market for Google.

Google has pursued a number of new initiatives under CEO Sundar Pichai, who took over nearly three years ago. With Pichai in place, taking a back seat now is co-founder Sergey Brin, who was born in the Soviet Union and remembers what it's like to live under a repressive regime. When Brin pulled Google out of China eight years ago, he cited a more open internet as a key goal.

The "Great Firewall" Grows

But under five years of President Xi Jinping's rule, China has gone from bad to horrible in terms of censorship. Despite the right to free speech in Article 35 of China's constitution, the regime clamps down on information it doesn't like with the force of a thousand dragons.

It imprisons lawyers representing peasants who are merely standing up for their rights, such as fair compensation when they are forced from their rural homes to make way for government projects.

Its propaganda department scours popular online sites and scrubs them of speech deemed critical of the government. As part of China's "Great Firewall," it blocks any mentions of the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, of ethnic conflict and repression in Tibet and Xinjiang, and of political demonstrations almost anywhere.

The firewall blocks foreign websites so Chinese citizens get only a jingoistic view of what's going on in their own country from domestic media that face strict rules on what's reported.

Liu Xiaobo won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize while locked up for his writing and non-violent activism for human rights. Liu, who had lived in Beijing, died in a prison in the northeastern city of Shenyang at age 61 last year. Ask almost anyone in China about Liu Xiaobo and you'll get a blank stare. The vast majority of Chinese people have no idea who he was, because no mention of him is allowed in the media.

The firewall blocks foreign websites to the public that carry news about China, including Bloomberg, CNN, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. It also blocks Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and other Western social media sites.

Does "Everyone" Include China?

Given the strict, systematic repression of free speech in China, is Google, with its lofty mission statement, selling its soul? On its website, Google says it seeks to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."

"Since the beginning, our goal has been to develop services that significantly improve the lives of as many people as possible," the company says. "Not just for some. For everyone."

 "Everyone" apparently does not include the 1.4 billion people who live in China – nearly one-fifth of humanity. They will get no benefit from having Google in the country, because it will be relegated to being another Baidu – China's leading search engine that bows to the state and dutifully blocks undesirable content.

The Intercept reported that documents marked "Google confidential" say that Google's Chinese search app "will automatically identify and filter websites blocked by the Great Firewall."

The documents cite the BBC and Wikipedia as examples of sites that will be subject to the app's censorship.

The search app will also "blacklist sensitive queries" so that "no results will be shown" at all when people enter certain words or phrases, the documents state. 

While this seems unlikely to help China's citizens, Google's move does stand to benefit the Chinese government, which can claim a propaganda victory by noting that one of the world's leading internet companies is operating there. Some analysts fear that Google could lead other companies to similarly succumb to China's censorship as a means of passage into the Chinese market.

"A Big Disaster"

Patrick Poon, a Hong Kong-based researcher with human rights group Amnesty International, told The Intercept that Google's decision to comply with the censorship would be "a big disaster for the Information Age."

"This has very serious implications not just for China, but for all of us, for freedom of information and internet freedom," Poon said. "It will set a terrible precedent for many other companies who are still trying to do business in China while maintaining the principles of not succumbing to China's censorship. The biggest search engine in the world obeying the censorship in China is a victory for the Chinese government – it sends a signal that nobody will bother to challenge the censorship anymore."

Right now, it's unclear whether Google will actually make the move. It's still in negotiations, and the growing U.S.-China trade war could nix the deal.

Most people use their smartphones to access the internet in China, and Google's plan is to come up with a censor-friendly Android app. The company's plan for a possible desktop application is unknown.

We don't know for sure the totality of Google's motivations or what concessions it might be trying to extract from China's leaders, because it's refusing to comment.

But whatever form Google's search function takes in China, it would seem the Silicon Valley tech giant sits on the verge of plunging into a chasm of temptation that China, despite all its repressive faults, represents.