In the Hutong
I just got done reading the umpteenth commentary about how bad Google is for its decision to block certain sites on its Google.cn searches. In this case, it was Jon Carroll’s chest-thumping diatribe in the San Francisco Chronicle (aka Pravda-by-the-Bay). While I recognize that Mr. Carroll is playing to his audience, arguably the largest geographic agglomeration of extreme viewpoints on the planet, I find his comments naive and uninformed.
But now Google has decided to close one whole floor of the marketplace of ideas. Chinese citizens who want to find out about their own country can’t. They can’t even read opinions about what is going on. Farmers in violent confrontations with police? Never heard of it. Whole rivers polluted with poisons? Nothing here, boss. Preventable industrial accidents? Doesn’t happen.
Anyone using the Net in China who wants this kind of information knows better than to rely on any search engine, whether it’s Baidu, Sohu, Sina, Yahoo!, Netease, or any other engine. Know why? Because those search engines block the same searches, AND because there are thousands of such sites that are blocked at China’s gateway anyway. Anyone in China seeking access to such information either learns English, or they learn a single English word: “proxy.”
The suggestion that Google is closing some door to information that isn’t already double-bolted by other means only reflects how Mr. Carroll and his fellow travelers suffer from sufficient misinformation about China that one must question their qualifications to intelligently comment on the matter.
He also goes on to say:
The more plugged-in Chinese citizens already know about this, and so they know Google isn’t trustworthy, and that’s not exactly a smart way to build a brand.
I would venture to suggest that Mr. Carroll knows nothing about what it takes to build a brand in China. Sohu, Sina, Baidu and a half dozen other search sites have done brilliantly building their brands in China, all without providing Chinese citizens with access to sites and information that the government blocks. Unlike in the U.S., or specifically in San Francisco, you do not need to flip Big Brother the double-bird to get yourself noticed and build cred with the locals. Frankly, if the global press weren’t making such a big deal about this, it wouldn’t even be noticed in China, and frankly nobody here I speak to even gives a damn.
Google is doing its fiduciary duty to shareholders by taking whatever actions necessary to ensure it’s future revenues. I’m sure somebody at Google HQ feels an obligation to all of the individuals whose future depends in part on its share price and its revenues. And so they decide to bend to the rules in China. I’m sure it galled the company’s founders to the core to do so.
For those who have an issue with that, may I offer two choices to solve this problem.
- Invest. Put your money where your mouth is, buy a share or two or more in Google and make your voice heard as a shareholder. “As a shareholder I am willing to forego any potential benefits – and suffer the potential costs – of Google’s refusal to play by the rules of the Chinese government.” If every individual who is pissed off at Google for this were to take this action, it would make quite a block. Of course, get ready for the stock to take a hit when your words are heard and Google makes public its decision to give up on the potential upside China represents.
- Divest. If you have a pension fund, get together with your fellow pensioners and demand that your fund divest its Google shares.
In the meantime, try to spend some time and learn a bit more about how China’s market and Internet really work. Because all of this well-intentioned hand-wringing is starting to reek of paternalism.