The Google-versus-China situation has devolved so far that it’s gone straight past politics and into cheap soap opera.
When Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) complained about the attacks against it, which allegedly originated in China, the Chinese government’s response was, “Like it or leave.”
Now that Google is looking at doing just that, the Chinese government’s response has changed to, “Oh no you don’t!”
Business Week quotes a Chinese government spokesman as saying that even though Google is leaving, it must still abide by the rules it agreed to when it entered China.
I don’t know what to make of that. On the one hand, sure, if Google agreed to rules, they should abide by them for as long as it takes them to get out -- but think about this: The world’s No. 1 search engine, one of its premier technology incubators, a company that has expertly positioned itself at the nexus of all the data flows, is looking at leaving China outright... and the government is scolding them as they walk to the exit?
In soap operas, cheap theatrics lead audiences to change the channel. When it comes from a major world government, trade and investment decide to do business elsewhere.
The risks to both sides are enormous. Cutting off trade with China means U.S. businesses will be writing off the world’s largest emerging market. This is not a good move at the best of times, and even worse during economic doldrums.
On China’s side, cutting off trade with Google is just as disastrous. China has been a leader in manufacturing for years, and now they want to be a leader in scientific and technological development. At the same time, they’re driving away their best ally in achieving their goals. At Nanjing Agricultural University, an ecology professor has said that “research without Google would be like life without electricity.” Over three-quarters of surveyed Chinese academics reported that Google was their primary search tool.
As bad as the situation with Google is, the larger context is even worse. It used to be that a couple of researchers having beers together would discover their research dovetailed nicely. Nowadays, we read each other’s Facebook updates and LiveJournal pages, and so forth. Sometimes serendipity will strike and we’ll think, “Hmm, this person should really meet this other person.” Social networking is increasingly turning into the lifeblood of research and development -- unless you’re in China, where you can’t hit Facebook (Nasdaq: FB)
, can’t follow Twitter Inc. , and soon won’t be able to follow the buzz.
China is at a crossroads. It can choose totalitarian control of information and economic espionage against its competitors -- or it can choose the other path, the path of free communications and fair play on the networks. Or, at least, that’s what we’d like to think.
Keep in mind that we’re talking about a country that sees no contradiction in being both firmly Communist and at the same time encouraging a free market. Given that they’ve already juggled that paradox, the Chinese government might consider this to be just one more strangeness to navigate.
I’m halfway through Kissinger’s Diplomacy, and so far it’s been no help at all in understanding this. Of all the revolutions the Internet is bringing, the international diplomatic revolution is by far the most confusing to me.
— Robert J. Hansen, freelance hacker and computer science doctoral student at the University of Iowa