More is riding on Google’s twists and turns in China than whether the American tech giant is putting profits over principles. Google’s rocky relationship with the globe’s most populous country tells a bigger story of what happens in a world with two distinct internets at a time when — more than ever — our realities are driven by what we see and read on the web.
Over the weekend, we found out about talks between Google and Tencent to operate cloud services in China. The news came after revelations that the Alphabet unit was developing a search engine and news app tailored, and censored, for China. The string of stories prompted an American friend to ask me, “If Google sees a business opportunity, why does it matter if it bends to Beijing’s information controls?”
The answer can be found in the blank stares of Chinese and Western bar-goers in Beijing who try to strike up conversations but can’t reconcile references to historical events. Think everyone knows the facts about the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, or politically-sensitive figures like the Dalai Lama? Think again. On the flip side, I can’t tell you how many Americans earnestly ask, “What is WeChat?” or “What does Alibaba do?” Consider this: many Chinese teenagers have never heard of Facebook and Google, unthinkable for the billions of users who can’t imagine life without the two tech titans.
Sophisticated propaganda campaigns during presidential elections in places such as the US and the Philippines shows us how news, images and information people consume online can influence the way we vote, think, and ultimately, act. China’s ramping up of media and information controls in the last year also reveals how much has changed since Google first pulled its search engine in 2010, with optimists betting that China “will eventually get more open.”
A post that appeared last week on a Google internal message board presented the opposite take. It read: “Westerners debating Google entering China feels somehow like men debating regulating women’s bodies.” That may be true, but if China and, say, the US are living in separate cyber worlds, and absorbing two distinct realities, how can we expect these countries to cooperate on the larger world stage and reach agreements on things such as trade and intellectual property?
Plus, it turns out effective censorship isn’t all that easy. Since Google abandoned its search operations in China in 2010, information controls have become so advanced in China it’s unclear Google could comply quickly enough to satisfy authorities, says Xu Chenggang, an economics professor at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business.
Xu explains how Tencent, Baidu, Toutiao and other Internet giants employ artificial intelligence and tens of thousands of human minders to ferret out information Beijing considers sensitive. Google would have to invest a huge amount of capital to match that.
“The reasons Google’s search engine works better than others is the database of information it controls and the algorithms filtering those results,” Xu said. “If Google can’t use a majority of that information database because it’s blocked by censors and it hasn’t invested in creating algorithms to comply with what government wants, it’s hard to see how a Google search engine does well in China.”
On Monday, the Communist Party mouthpiece aka the People’s Daily wrote an editorial welcoming Google back to China — so long as it complies with laws (prime among them being open censorship). That’s a positive sign. A partnership with Tencent, whose founder Pony Ma is a representative of China’s rubber-stamp parliament, or state-backed Inspur could offer tools and additional political cover to bring Google back to the mainland.
Collaborations could also assure authorities that Google could operate in China under the watchful eyes of powerful and politically-connected Chinese companies. But they would do nothing to bridge the deep digital wedge driving China and Western countries further apart.