What do you do when the most important market in the world also happens to be controlled by an oppressive, communist regime with a miserable human rights record? If you're General Motors, you very carefully begin selling cars and find success by partnering with the right Chinese companies and bending over backwards to comply with Chinese law. If you're Google, you rattle your sabres and try to maintain your "don't be evil" brand, while still ensuring that several hundred million potential users can access your vast array of services unfettered.
Good luck with that.
I've said before that Google actually should walk away from this market until changes sweep through China in the same way they've swept through the Middle East. The human spirit is such that people eventually say enough is enough. Staying in China simply exposes Google and the data with which its countless customers worldwide entrust it to unacceptable risks and scrutiny. The PR isn't too hot either.
And yet...The country has over a billion people in it. A billion. Like a thousand millions. And change. All of whom should really be clicking on ads when they Google something rather than when they, ummm, Baidu something.
This week, Google has claimed that the Chinese government is blocking Gmail, among other core Google services. The Guardian reports that
A Google spokesman told the Guardian this week: "Relating to Google, there is no [technical] issue on our side. We have checked extensively. This is a government blockage carefully designed to look like the problem is with Gmail."
The Chinese government, for its part, calls this accusation unacceptable. Whatever that means.
If you know that Google is constantly under government surveillance, access to your email and other cloud-based data will frequently be interrupted by government hackers, and that the service will either be unreliable or get you thrown into jail, how often will you be Googling? Why would you use Gmail? I have tens of thousands of emails in my Gmail account; interrupting access even to my personal account would be crippling on many fronts.
So why stick around? Why does Google continue to dump resources and efforts into what seems to be a lost cause? The next conflict over some service or some degree of censorship is right around the corner. Is it worth it? How about Google redirects those resources to making Google Docs fidelity match that of Office365? Or finally get a social network right?
Because the last time the World Bank checked (2009), there were 1,331,460,000 people living in China. Can any company afford to walk away from a market like that, no matter how flawed and difficult it might be. All of us have spent longer than we should in a dysfunctional relationship sometime in our lives hoping that the other party would change.
The thing here is that China just might change. A so-called Jasmine Revolution won't happen this year and probably won't happen next year. But communist, Draconian regimes have a habit of eventually crumbling. And wouldn't Google just be kicking itself if it bailed out of China 6 months or a year before the Great Firewall fell like a 21st century Berlin Wall?
Should Google stay in China or cut its losses and get out? Talk back and let me know what you think.