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“Please stay in China. They need you”

Maxim: Google’s self-censorship in China was a mistake from the beginning

Google wants to stop censoring itself in China now it has become clear that the Chinese government has been trying to hack into dissidents’ Gmail accounts. Isn’t this a little too late? Wasn’t it wrong from the start to deny the Chinese people access to certain sites? Or was this a strategic move: starting with a censored Google and then bit by bit hoping to offer full access?

“It’s not so easy to do business in China, in particular if you want to do business according to Western rules”, says Tom van Veen, associate professor of Economics and chair of UM’s China country team. “You could easily fill a bookshelf with books discussing this issue. If you want to do business in China, you have to comply with the rules – and people know this in advance. So it’s strange that Google is only now deciding to withdraw from China, because nothing has changed since 2006. Was Google naively thinking that it could change Chinese censorship policy? I don’t think so – and so I think there’s another argument, one that must be the same as for other companies: they leave China if their intellectual property is at stake, if their knowledge is stolen. That must be the real argument, and indeed, ‘googling’ around on this issue shows an article in the Chicago Tribune that claims the same.”

According to Xiaoyan Zhang, account manager for China at the Marketing and Communication Department, “This is a dilemma, not only for Google but for all companies who want to do business in China. On the one hand, I don’t like it either that Chinese people have few opportunities to find information and communicate with the rest of the world. Websites like Facebook and YouTube are blocked. On the other hand, I don’t think you can do much about it. This is a decision by the Chinese government, and they are very fierce about it. I think Google should try to adapt to the Chinese culture and regulations. I understand this will conflict with its own regulations, but the Chinese people deserve to have as many sources of information as they can. We must open a window for them. So Google: please stay in China. They need you.”

Researcher Rogier Creemers, an expert in the field of Chinese media and property law, doesn’t agree with the maxim. “I think that Google went to China in 2006 with good intentions. The company wanted to take a first step in opening up the web in China. In the beginning it seemed to work. But in the past few years, the government has become more stringent.”

The Gmail cyber attack was the catalyst that made Google consider ending its operations in China. Creemers now believes the company will leave China. “This is not because the freedom of speech is in danger, but rather the safety of Gmail accounts. The withdrawal of Google is a greater loss for China than for the company. There will be no competition anymore on the internet market – the domestic company Baidu will be the only one left. And China will be deprived of all the innovative power of Google. Of course, the company will lose a big market. About 384,000 Chinese have an internet account. But Google doesn’t need China to be profitable.”

 

Cleo Freriks, Riki Janssen, Maurice Timmermans

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