Today, China renewed Google’s license to do business in the country, reports The Washington Post. The announcement means that Google will maintain its presence in the country for the foreseeable future. Google will likely meet criticism, but this is good news nonetheless for Chinese Internet users.
The rapidly unfolding Google-China saga has made headline after headline since January, when Google announced that it had suffered an intrusion originating in China. In March, after months of internal debate and heavy public criticism, Google shut down its China-based search engine Google.cn, redirecting all queries to its Hong Kong-based Google.com.hk site. Late last month, Google reactivated some of its China-based services and has continued to operate in China, albeit on a limited basis.
Operating in China has long been a headache for Google, due to the Chinese government’s notorious disregard for Internet freedom, embodied by its infamous “Great Firewall of China.” China surveils all Internet traffic that traverses its borders and attempts to block its citizens from accessing information sources which the government considers unfavorable. China also gleans data from its network to identify and retaliate against political dissidents.
Human rights advocates have long derided Google and other U.S. tech companies, such as Microsoft and Yahoo, for doing business in China. China requires all search engines operating in the country to censor a broad range of information, like photos of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Critics contend that complying with the Chinese government’s oppressive demands is unethical and that facilitating censorship and suppression is morally unacceptable on its face.
Such criticisms, however principled, miss the forest for the trees. If Google were to cease its Chinese operations entirely, the result would be one less U.S. Internet firm accessible to Chinese citizens. While Google is the worldwide search leader, in the Chinese search market Google lags behind Baidu, a search company based in China. Baidu’s market share increased after Google shut down its China-based search site. If Google were to pull out of China entirely, chances are Baidu would pick up many more users.
Why is this troubling? Because Baidu has a long history of complying with the Chinese government’s demands, and has never publicly repudiated the regime’s oppressive practices.
American firms that operate in China do so begrudgingly, often repudiating the state’s human rights violations and, at times, even pushing back when they believe the government has gone too far. Google in particular has struggled over the ethical dilemma posed by China. Before 2005, Google had not formally entered the Chinese market at all, partially on human rights grounds. And after its servers were hacked from within China in late 2009, Google was reportedly on the verge of pulling out of China entirely.
The complicity of U.S. tech firms in China’s oppressive practices has also spurred attacks from politicians looking to score political points. At a recent hearing, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) accused Microsoft of “enabling tyranny” in China. And Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) is pushing for federal legislation to regulate the practices of U.S. companies that do business in non-democratic nations.
Such saber-rattling will only make problems worse. Undermining the autonomy of private U.S. corporations to make their own business decisions only discourages constructive business engagement with China. Worse, American politicians’ lambasting of China actually emboldens the Chinese regime, which plays upon nationalist sentiments to garner public support.
American businesses, on the other hand, are in a far better position to criticize Chinese censorship. Google and Microsoft are household names in China. And it is far more difficult for the Chinese government to demonize American technology firms than the U.S. government.
Yes, China has a horrendous human rights record, but it isn’t the only nation in the world whose government routinely tramples human rights. In the flawed world we live in, to expect businesses to operate only in nations that truly respect their citizens’ human rights is wishful thinking. Neither Google nor any other American company enjoys facilitating Chinese oppression. But given the available alternatives, is pulling out really a superior option? Is relegating Chinese citizens to patronizing solely Chinese firms actually conducive to improving human rights?
In the long run, disengaging China will not encourage its government to grant greater political freedoms to its people. Commerce between the U.S. and China facilitates wealth creation and opens up new economic opportunities in both countries. In China, that new wealth, along with corresponding new opportunities, help expand the country’s middle class, bringing subsistence farmers into cities and, thus, closer to the global economy.
For China to become a politically and economically freer nation, a sizable middle class is a crucial factor. While Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo may not seem to be making China any freer now, they can only help in the long run.