Google's decision to pull out of China is the first genuinely new international power play of the 21st century. And that decision has been made: although the company talks of discussing its future with the authorities, Google has practically accused the Chinese government at best of incompetence, at worst of espionage and theft.
There will be no discussions.
Google has publicly declared that doing business in China is incompatible with Western standards of human rights, and that it's commercially well-nigh impossible. This declaration, and the willingness to accept the consequences, stands in fascinating contrast with the approach made by Western political leaders. It's also a rare example of a company acting - at least partially - in a moral plane, without being pushed to do so by prolonged and public pressure. Google's earlier willingness to work to Chinese rules was criticised, to be sure, but the company didn't attract much more opproprium than any other and was generally given the same dispensation of necessity given to other companies working in China (including, for the record, CBSi, which publishes ZDNet UK).
The real reasoning - and how ethical concerns were balanced with practical and commercial ones - will be much discussed. A company as dependent as Google is on the Internet may well not be able to work in a country where the information infrastructure is owned by an actively hostile agency. It would be exceptional if Google was to publish the board minutes of the decision, an act that would defuse -- or confirm -- much of the speculation to come, and that would focus attention back on the act itself.
For now, however, it's fair to take Google's statements at face value. It could have shut up shop with less fanfare and far less confrontation. But the statement is one of a company with patience ended, one that no longer wishes to play the game and wants make it perfectly clear why.
And so over to the Chinese, who have received a very public dressing-down in an international environment where every attempt is made to avoid slight or condemnation. That reaction will be interesting. There are good odds on it being a variation of Stalin's infamous "How many divisions has the Pope?", when dismissing the power of religion to counter his dictatorship. One American company gone away, even Google, is one less to worry about. But the pressure on other companies - and the politicians - to abjure China just got a lot stronger, and the voice of the critics of China just got a lot more force.
And that, no matter how you view Google's real motives, is a rare and rather wonderful event.