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Analysis: Google and China agree on a fiction

Writer says China agreed to a fiction in order to allow Google, save face.
Writer says China agreed to a fiction in order to allow Google, save face.
  • Google's application to work in China for another year was unexpectedly renewed
  • Compromise lets Chinese users click box, go to unfiltered, Hong Kong-based search
  • The compromise doesn't tear down Chinese firewall but it does create a hole, writer says
  • Google Inc.
  • China

(Wired) -- Google got its Chinese visa extended Friday, but that doesn't mean the company is having a good trip or that China's censorship has gone away.

Google's application to run for another year looked like it was going to be denied by the Chinese government, who decided that simply redirecting all users to an unfiltered search site in Hong Kong wasn't acceptable. Perhaps they found it a bit too clever and easy for Google.

Now Google has replaced the search box on with a picture of a search box, which when clicked on takes the user to  adding another click between a Chinese citizen and unfiltered search results.

That seems to have satisfied the Chinese authorities -- and saved them some face -- at least for the time being.

It's a testament to the power of Google that it can get away with what is really a shameless charade.

The problem is neither side is totally committed to their stated positions. The whole thing started when Google got hacked, letting an intruder get to source code and information on Chinese human rights activists.

Out of anger and embarrassment -- and perhaps to change the subject -- Google blamed China for the hacking and said that it was no longer willing to censor its search results on as it had been since 2006.

Of course, Google could have tested the limits of its quasi-governmental power by simply shutting down

But the Chinese market is the largest in the world, and while Google may have the world's best search technology, that's not likely enough to break the spine of China's authoritarian rulers.

On the surface, it seems like China's government is in a perilous position, trying to run a free-market economy within a regime dedicated to censoring negative information. But the strategy is working well enough, clocking nearly 10 percent growth in GDP, even in the midst of one of the worst global recessions.

But clearly, Google is loved by enough powerful people -- especially the growing middle and upper classes in China -- that China is willing to make some concessions, so long as they aren't perceived as kowtowing to a powerful U.S. corporation.

Google also gets to continue keeping an engineering office in China, running an ad business, and offering a product and music search engine on -- all ways to keep themselves from being exiled from a market that is destined to become a huge profit-maker for some search engine.

The new compromise does, however, hobble the company's ability to serve as the default search engine for online portals, Chinese web browsers and mobile phones -- which in the West has helped drive Google to its undeniable spot as the king of search engines.

So the fake image of a search box oddly makes for a logical, if temporary, impasse.

That's not tearing the Great Chinese firewall down, but it's actually a pretty big hole, even if both Google and China decide not to call it a hole.

This kind of odd compromise is hardly unprecedented with the Chinese.

Taiwan and China avoid war by both claiming to be the legitimate rulers of mainland China, a fiction that has persisted for more than 50 years, even as Taiwan is, in nearly all respects, its own country.

But if Taiwan ever does decide to publicly say it is its own country, that's ground for a Chinese invasion.

So now we have a new fiction to add to that one. Google doesn't run an unfiltered search engine in China, even though Chinese users can use an unfiltered Google search engine by going to and clicking a facsimile of a search box.

Depending on where you stand, that's either a good thing for net freedom or a capitulation by Google.

But that's the fiction that's been agreed upon.

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Copyright 2011


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