Yesterday I suggested that a Google-China split would be temporary as economic and social forces ultimately would lead China to relax its dictatorial policies and open its doors further to trade partners. A few readers agreed, others were just disappointed in the softness of Google's approach, and still others felt that Google needed to do whatever was necessary to stay in China. It is, after all, China.
Now Google is reporting that they are seeing service disruptions on the deadline for the renewal of their Chinese operating license and one has to wonder if this is the beginning of the end for Google's operations in the largest Internet market in the world (at least for now, if my theory on China's long-term social and business evolution holds true). According to the Wall Street Journal,
"It appears that search queries produced by Google Suggest are being blocked for mainland users in China. Normal searches that do not use query suggestions are unaffected," the company said in a statement.
Google declined to speculate why only Google Suggest searches were being blocked. The blockage affected only searches conducted from within mainland China, not those from Hong Kong.
This begs the question whether this is merely saber-rattling from the Chinese government, if it indicates a tenuous detente between Google and China, or if this is the beginning of much broader blocking of Google services. I'm inclined towards the detente theory. Google, for its part, gave in to China's demands that it stop automatically redirecting to an unfiltered Hong Kong-based search. China, for its part, exerts a bit of extra control over the content in the google.cn domain and saves face in its dealings with one of the only large corporations to challenge its policies. It also maintains relations with an arguably very important partner in its efforts towards economic growth and expansion, despite Google's relatively low market share in China.
One also has to wonder if the effort, drama, and legal wranglings are worth Google's trouble in China. Even if it allowed to continue operating, will its users always be wondering what services will be blocked next? As it is, Google has been largely unable to make its Apps enterprise products available behind the Great Firewall and its ad-based search revenue from mainland China is only a small fraction of its global billions.
Most would continue to argue, though, that "it's China, stupid!". Of course it's worth their while, right? I mean, well, it's China! We'll see, though, if whatever compromise (if any) comes from this latest dispute is enough to satisfy shareholders, Chinese users, human rights activists, and Google itself, which has repeatedly struggle to maintain its Don't be Evil credo in China.