China has made it clear to Google that their current approach of redirecting users to an unfiltered Chinese language search site in Hong Kong is unacceptable, threatening to reject their license to operate as an Internet Content Provider if the practice continued. Google is pursuing some questionable workarounds (namely, letting Chinese users click through from the google.cn landing page to the unfiltered Hong Kong-based search), but as ZDNet's Sam Diaz asked this morning,
Will that fly with Chinese officials? We’ll know soon enough - Google has resubmitted its ICP license application based on the new landing page approach. But it’s unclear whether that’s enough for Chinese officials to allow Google to continue operations there.
Perhaps I'm being overly confident (after all, I don't own any Google stock), but I say, let 'em go. They'll be back. Here's why.
The economic reforms that have swept through China in the last decade have brought extraordinary changes to the country. While the government has allowed the economically prosperous to flourish and the country to grow, as a result, into an economic superpower, the government has maintained extremely rigorous control over many basic freedoms that most Westerners take for granted. Dana Blankenhorn was blunt in his summary of the situation:
This is a very basic conflict. Can a nation take over the world economy while prohibiting all thoughts it finds uncomfortable? If this is the century of China it’s the sunset for freedom, a sunrise for corruption, and those like Steve Forbes who prefer comfort to liberty deserve neither.
While it's hard to disagree with Dana, I take a more pragmatic approach. China needs the rest of the world. The economic disparities in the country are so vast that most Chinese citizens can't afford the cheap Chinese goods we consume every day. In a country that has moved largely from communism to capitalism, yet retained the totalitarian practices needed to enforce communism, change is not far away. The economic changes in the country have been drastic and stunning. Social change will eventually follow, as China would stifle its own economic growth by maintaining a closed and insular society. Trade with other countries requires contact with those countries and their cultures. China's current totalitarian practices, in my opinion, won't be sustainable as outside influences inevitably make their way in.
Baidu may be the dominant search engine now in China, but it's a relic of the China we know right now. What will China be in 5 years when they also dominate auto markets worldwide or when the cheapest of manufacturing has moved to newly developing countries in Asia, South America, and Africa? When China must embrace global, modern, collaborative, transparent business practices to sustain a new knowledge and high-end manufacturing economy instead of merely keeping Walmart's shelves stocked, Google will still be around, ready to step into the Chinese market and leave Baidu behind.
Why? Because Google is at the forefront of the cloud, knowledge management, and that very knowledge economy that China will have to welcome into its borders. Google will be everywhere except China. And when China opens its doors (which it will eventually do), Google will be there too.
I'm not an economist and I'm not being flippant. However, there's nothing to suggest that Google, along with Microsoft, Apple, IBM, and other giants in the knowledge economy won't continue to grow, expand, and innovate. Google is so inexorably woven into the Internet and the communications industry that a return to China, uncensored and unchecked, will happen in time. It's not as if China can simply leave the West, the Internet, and worldwide telecommunications behind.