Leaving China to domestic internet companies won't advance the cause of free information.
In mid-December, Google suffered a "…sophisticated and targeted attack on [its] corporate infrastructure originating from China…" In its official blog, Google subsequently announced that it was "…no longer willing to continue censoring… results on Google.cn" and that "…this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China." The foreign media are full of congratulations for Google's "brave stand." If Google does exit China, the decision may or may not be economically motivated, but it would certainly be an overreaction. And it is ultimately the wrong thing to do since it can only benefit censorship and Google's Chinese competitors.Like so much grandstanding about human rights in China, Google's exit would be a pointless gesture because it would fail to have the desired impact on ordinary Chinese. The foreign media waxes poetic about the flowers left at Google's headquarters, but even considering government controls the story seems to have gained little traction in China. Furthermore, there is a much wider range of opinion among the Chinese about why Google might leave and many would happily view it as "…another defeat of American imperialism." Vilifying China or the Chinese government, which remains domestically popular, probably pushes away more Chinese than it attracts and may hurt rather than advance liberal democratic causes."The Great Firewall," as the Chinese government's system of internet censorship is melodramatically termed, is even worse at keeping sensitive information out of The People's Republic than its namesake was at protecting Imperial China from marauding Manchus and Mongols. I've never had much trouble working around it with virtual private networks; it is little more than an inconvenience. But it is exactly this inconvenience that makes Google's withdrawal a mistake. Chinese internet users, like people everywhere, prefer the path of least resistance. The reason China's internet censorship is fairly effective is not because it is impenetrable, but because working around it takes effort and can slow down access speeds. The only substantive effect of Google shutting down its search servers in China (it already takes the precaution of keeping its e-mail and blog servers outside of China) would be slower searches and more users switching to Google's Chinese competitors.If Google stays, its influence on China will probably be marginal, but almost certainly positive. If Google makes it a little more difficult for authorities to track down human rights advocates through their email accounts or slightly easier to access, or even learn about, otherwise censored information, then it has made a contribution. Its presence in China has also discouraged the government from blocking foreign-based and uncensored Google.com.Furthermore, the presence of Google helps draw Chinese into the global community. For example, Baidu, China's most popular search engine, gained market share by guiding users to free music (of disputed legality). Google, however, made an important contribution towards reconciling intellectual property disputes between the United States and China by arranging for many foreign record labels to give away their music through Google.cn in return for a portion of the advertising revenues. If the Chinese stick to domestic alternatives like Tudou, Baidu, QQ, and Renrenwang while the rest of the world prefers Youtube, Google, MSN Messenger, and Facebook it bodes ill for mutual understanding, dialogue, acceptance, and cooperation. Google should do its best to combat censorship while maintaining its presence in China. If the government eventually blocks Google.cn, so be it, but it should not quit the field voluntarily.Google's choice echoes the dilemma that many companies, non-governmental organizations, countries, and individuals face when dealing with China. At what point does being complicit in an illiberal and undemocratic regime outweigh the value of engaging, and thereby influencing, the Chinese public and government? In considering this question, it is worth thinking about a few examples. Authoritarian regimes that have remained isolated, such as Cuba and North Korea, have tended to show little or no movement towards liberal democracy. On the other hand, despite having had substantial democratic and human rights deficits, regimes such as Taiwan and South Korea that were politically, socially and economically engaged with developed democracies can now be counted among them.Google's continued presence in China is unlikely to result in significant political changes, but it couldn't hurt.Guest blogger John Wagner Givens is a doctoral candidate at Oxford University living in Hong Kong.