I had been expecting Google to take its marbles and go home—abandoning China to Baidu and other local players. This expectation was, in part, due to the great analysis I read and commented on, in Tricia Wang's Cultural Bytes blog. So I was pleasantly surprised this week to learn that Google and the Chinese government had come to an accommodation that renewed Google's license in China and lets Google continue to serve Chinese customers, but still host their servers in Hong Kong as they’ve been doing since the beginning of the year.
Josh Noble at the Financial Times sheds more light on WHY the Chinese government renewed Google's license at the last minute, by quoting the Eurasia Group heavily: To paraphrase, the Chinese succumbed because Chinese scientists and geeks rely heavily on Google, and Chinese industry relies heavily on its scientists and geeks. Josh quotes the Eurasia Group:
"Google had won the loyalty of Chinese scientists and engineers. This powerful constituency sits at the nexus of every strand of China's industrial modernization effort. And its members often prefer using Google to its Chinese competitor, Baidu, the limited search capabilities of which would constrain access to international technical books, papers, data, and websites, and which cannot compete with Google's popular translator tool."
But Tricia Wang, the ethnographer who is studying the way that people relate to and use technology in countries like Mexico and China, also has much more to say about her take on the Google/China rift in her blog post on Googlist Realism. She takes Google to task for using an "ethical edge" to justify their stance with China:
"They [Google] believe that they draw upon the qualities that stand opposite from evil — benevolence, compassion, and kindness — to serve their higher-calling of introducing the world to information."…..
"This is a common moral trope of colonialism, imperialism, globalization, and neo-liberalism: ethical beliefs that justify expansionary practices of extracting commodities and creating new markets in the name of a 'higher calling.'"
But instead of extracting spices, opium, gold, bodies, labor or oil, Google was trying to extract information from the Chinese market and then commodify that information as it provided it back to Chinese consumers — ostensibly in the name of 'freedom.' The weapon of choice is no longer guns, germs, and steel, but free-information, open platforms, and distributed architectures."
I recommend that you read Tricia's fascinating post, look at the slides from her recent speech about this topic, in which she goes on to say:
"We need to make sure that we don't succumb to Googlist Realism. Much like Capitalist Realism, the belief that there is no alternative to the reality of capitalism as a way of life, Googlist Realism is the belief that there is no alternative to Google as our search engine and as our gatekeeper of information. The belief that capitalism can improve life is now supplanted by the free-information regimes of neo-informationalism — the belief that unfettered information access is life.
Google has successfully linked the commodification of information to an ethical system of social change. This rhetoric is so strong that I worry that we could lose our imagination for any other form of information reality or social change outside of a Google-like model. I also worry that those who question this model will be framed as enemies of freedom, information, and social change.
Google and China have their own visions for the social life of information and for the role of information in society. We should be equally critical of a corporation with algorithms that create a consensual consumer culture based on advertising clicks as we are of a country with policies that create a consensual citizenry based on obedience through a paternalistic form of governance."
You can read Tricia's interesting paper, which she delivered at a conference at UCLA on June 29, 2010.