I’m still catching up on Google’s announcement that Chinese government cyberattacks, aimed ultimately at persecuting dissidents, are causing the company to re-examine whether to continue operating in China. Marc Hedlund had this vivid phrase:
Google effectively has a foreign policy now. They have had nothing much to hold over China and have acted as a supplicant asking for access to their market. Now they’re saying: “F*** that, we have something you want. You have to treat us differently if you want to get it.” Now the ball is in China’s court to decide whether they want the investment of the most powerful tech company in the world in their country, or not. That very dramatically reverses the flow of the conversation they’ve had about China so far …
Nat Torkington has, effectively, a rejoinder:
I guess what I can’t see is the specific negotiation that will happen. Is it going to be, “stop attacking us and we’ll stay”? China won’t admit that, much less guarantee it won’t happen. And if Google goes, Chinese searchers will use Baidu, which is already the largest search engine in China. No big loss, it’s not like Boeing threatening to pull out of Seattle. Is there another deal (“let us into your telco market and we won’t shame you publicly with the hacking evidence we gathered that links your foreign department directly with cyberspying, we’ll just say your machines were gateways for Russians”) that’s the real focus?
I don’t know. Shame is a powerful thing to direct at an aspirant superpower. Google is universal — more than a luxury brand, it’s a company that offers people free access to information and visibly operates with an ethos of beneficence. Keeping Google in China is public-diplomacy consideration as much as it is an economic consideration. The U.S. government is ultimately limited in the amount of leverage it can exercise over China in the human-rights because it needs China’s acquiescence on a variety of other global concerns, from climate change to Iran. (That’s not to say it has no leverage or the correct position for the U.S. is acquiescence in the face of human-rights violations.) Google and other non-state actors will never need China’s vote at the Security Council. (Let’s table for now the problematic nature of giant corporations having this kind of power.)
Now, maybe Torkington is right and Google is bargaining for some greater market share. I like cynical explanations for corporate behavior! It’s not like Chinese persecution of dissidents is new. The difference-maker, according to Google’s statement, is the December cyberattack resulted in ” the theft of intellectual property from Google.” It’s easy enough to see the Chinese dialing that down somewhat, Google remaining in China, and Chinese dissidents being as fucked as they were in November.