Google's 'no' to China is 'yes' to a better future

Google is refusing to work under Chinese political restrictions. More companies should take that step
Written by Leader , Contributor

Do you do business with people you don't like? It's easy to say no when nothing much is at stake, but when you've got a third of the market and a fistful of high-profile deals, you can usually overlook the unpleasant side of your partners.

For Google in China, that's no longer true — and it's claiming that human rights are a big part of that decision.

More prosaic factors are also at work: Google says it has had company secrets stolen in concerted attacks on its infrastructure from within China. It's almost certain that the state itself is behind this and many other examples of intensive industrial espionage, and it is hard for any company to operate in such a hostile environment. Yet it is quite another matter to pull out while being so public about placing the blame. Google didn't have to do that.

Operating under the constraints set by China is incompatible with Google's business in other ways, simply because that business is making as much information as possible available to as many people as possible. It is no coincidence that these constraints are also incompatible with human rights to free speech and free association: Google is a creature of the internet, which itself could only have come about in a free country.

There is nothing more intuitively horrifying to authoritarian thought than losing control of information and its distribution — that's the reason the Soviet Union failed to develop a countrywide data network, even though it conceived such a thing in the 1950s. But nothing is more conducive to innovation, trade and competitiveness than open networks of people and ideas — like its air and water, these are things that China cannot afford to poison.

Such harm is masked by the country's current economic success. The extent that China succeeds as a functional authoritarian state depends on our willingness to treat and trade with it as an equal. Now Google has said 'no', for reasons that apply to many other companies, and the force of that refusal will be multiplied by each company that joins.

It's a simple equation even without issues of morality and taste: do the risks of operating in a country where executives can be arrested and the state is very actively involved in industrial espionage outweigh the benefits of doing business there? Even the global mining industry, hardly a poster child for rights over dollars, is giving China a wide berth. Purely a commercial decision — but it highlights the degree to which the Chinese attitude to international norms is damaging the country.

Helping China realise that is in our long-term interests, and also in those of China itself. Whatever short-term harm Google suffers from its decision will be more than offset over time, if others follow the company and admit the logic of its actions. It's a bold move. It deserves our support.

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