Google.cn moves to HK, guess it wasn’t just about the money

Google HKIf you’ve somehow missed the news, Google.cn has officially exited China, sort of. Instead of pulling out of the country completely, they’ve moved the search division of their business to Hong Kong, which is free of the political censorship rules that the Mainland’s internet is subject to.

Now when visiting google.cn, visitors are automatically redirected to Google.com.hk, which now features Simplified Chinese options and search abilities (perhaps it always did?). And while search results are no longer self-censored by the search company, they are now subject to the daft diligence of the Great Firewall of China. Searching for terms deemed too sensitive for your own good will return the “connection has been reset” error that we’ve all come to love.

When Google first made the announcement that they were considering dumping China, there was a lot of conjecture that the company was playing up the “we don’t want to censor our search results for the good of the people” angle in an effort to quietly leave a market that they weren’t dominating. It appears to me that by moving to Hong Kong they are illustrating that supplying China with a non-censoredBaidu Chinese alternative is still a priority of the company, and perhaps this was more about Google not “doing evil” than people first gave them credit for.

Unsurprisingly, officials weren’t short on words regarding Google’s actions. As Reuters reported, an unnamed official from China’s State Council Information Office (SCIO) said:

“Foreign companies operating in China must abide by Chinese laws. Google has violated the written promise it made on entering the Chinese market. It is totally wrong in halting (censorship) filtering of its search provider and also making aspersions and accusations towards China about hacking attacks. We firmly oppose politicising commercial issues, and express our dissatisfaction and anger at Google Inc’s unreasonable accusations and practices.”

“After repeated requests from Google, and to hear its real views face-to-face and demonstrate China’s sincerity, on January 29 and February 25 of this year responsible officials from China’s relevant authorities held talks with Google, and offered patient and detailed explanations about the issues raised.”

“They stressed that foreign companies in China should abide by Chinese laws, and if Google is willing to abide by Chinese laws, we continue to welcome it operating and developing in China. If Google insists on dismantling the search service of its Chinese website, that is Google’s own affair. But it must follow Chinese law and international custom, and responsibly handle the aftermath.”

“The Chinese government encourages the development and spread of the Internet, and promotes the opening of the Internet to the outside (world). Discussion and expression on China’s Internet are very lively, and digital commerce is developing rapidly. The facts demonstrate that China has a healthy environment for investing in and developing the Internet. China will unwaveringly adhere to a guiding policy of opening up, and it welcomes participation by foreign businesses in developing the Chinese Internet.”

The thing that concerns me most about the whole situation is the way that the (state-controlled) media so effectively crafts a narrative that suits the average citizen’s view of national pride vs. Western bias. And while I’m hopeful that smarter opinions will prevail (gTranslation), it’s not something we’ve seen much of in China.

Rebecca MacKinnon breaks it down into the Chinese government having two possible routes of response:

  1. Block Google.com.hk, and risk drawing more attention both from non-Chinese media, as well as making more and more Mainlanders aware of the censorship practices.
  2. Allow Google to continue with the rest of their lawful in-China operations (ad sales, etc.) and declare a victory in getting the non-censored search out of the country.

How it plays out is too unpredictable for this lowly blogger to guess, but there’s no question that Google’s move to Hong Kong was certainly the wildcard shakeup that most of us were hoping for. It’s not open defiance and not full retreat. Good on Google for taking a very Chinese method of solving the problem and finding a middle way.

I look forward to your thoughts below. Also, for a bit of a primer on the situation, check out Andrew Lih’s post.