"By now, most in the blogosphere already know about Google's announcement to possibly leave China, which may have some very interesting consequences and repercussions in the months to come. However, the case certainly goes way beyond the rhetoric about free speech and censorship. I believe it to be linked with both business and political issues, as well as the earlier Google Books case in China.
To start with, this decision taken by Google most certainly is a business decision, rather than a purely ethical decision. Going into China was a business decision as well, even if it led to some bad PR in the West. So what could lead Google into making this decision? Essentially, I believe that there was a sort of implicit deal between Google and the Chinese government: you let us operate in China, and we will obey by your censoring rules. Since then, however, Google has diversified from being a search engine into many other branches, such as maps, document processing, calendar services, etc. Many of these services based on the idea of Internet-based "cloud computing", which means that the user's data are no longer primarily stored on a hard drive in his computer, but the Internet, to be easily accessible from any computer in the world. It is planning to take this a step further through the Google Phone and the Chrome OS. Crucially, the viability of this business model depends on the trust that users have in the security of their data storage. If China - and the nature and sophistication of the attack against Google's and other companies' data centres suggests that the government might be involved to some extent - is perceived as attacking Google, Google must be seen to retaliate against China. Moreover, a number of the aforementioned services have been temporarily or permanently blocked in China. Whether this is about censorship-related control or a bid to make local competition much more attractive, the fact of the matter remains that Google has not had an easy time doing business in China.Additionally, the recent uproar concerning Google Books in China also did not help in this. While an argument can be made that Google Books could be legal under Chinese copyright legislation, it seems that this case was used by China, long pressured by the West to improve their intellectual property enforcement, to finally retaliate against a Western company perceived to violate Chinese IP. In the end, Google seems to say that if the Chinese government does not honour their part of the deal, Google will also not keep up theirs. And they say it loudly and clearly, hence their public announcement about stopping their censoring, and if told to leave China, they will.
Which brings us nicely to the political side of things. By making their case so clearly and public, Google has effectively put their plight very high on the American foreign relations and trade agenda.Apart from the whole discussion about market access for foreign enterprises on the Chinese Internet - remembering that China lost a WTO case about market access for foreign enterprises in the field of media only weeks ago - the cyber-spying allegations may go on to weigh heavily in Sino-Western relations, especially alongside other matters such as the environment, intellectual property or currency valuation. These all signal a shift in Chinese foreign relations attitude. Wherein the past, China tried to keep a low profile, and emphasize the peaceful nature of its rise, it now seems to care a lot less about antagonizing its trading partners, leading some to call it "the beginning of China's Bush-Cheney era". The question seems to be whether and how China wants to integrate into the global system, of which the Internet is an integral part. A number of Chinese Internet users decried that this is China withdrawing from the world, rather than Google from China. Tangentially, Internet storage and communication security will be increasingly crucial in tomorrow's business environment. China's control of the Internet also blocks out some companies' VPN (Virtual Private Network) systems. It will be interesting to see what happens when the first cases pop up where data is compromised because of this.
And where does this lead us where free speech is concerned? The bottom line is simple. In order to maintain its grasp of power, the Party needs to control the media, in order to legitimize their position and fragment dissent in China. This is probably the reason to attack Chinese human rights activists' e-mail accounts to begin with. It also needs to control the flow of information abroad, wary of what happened in Iran, when pictures and films of anti-government protests were rapidly spread through social media. Therefore, any system wherein the Party has less than complete final control over the content of the Internet, or at least of web sites based in China, will be unacceptable. If Google puts its money where its mouth is, it will therefore leave China. In the short run, China's network environment will be severely impoverished. But if this case might lead to Chinese concessions in other trade-related areas, or to foreign investment in China decreasing, it might also have repercussions that other important legitimizing factor of the Communist Party: China's speedy economic growth. To undoubtedly be continued."
Guest column written by Rogier Creemers, PhD Cand. University of Maastricht