The Untold Story of Google in China

A great deal is being made of Google’s just-received renewal of its Chinese internet content license, which allows the company to continue to operate (until further notice) without censoring its searches, if I understand properly and am being given accurate information by Google, by offering a “choice” splash page at the Chinese Google homepage. 

Chinese nationals who go to this page are faced with a search box, and a choice below it, allowing them to jump to Google : Hong Kong, which is not (one hopes) censored.

This, on the face of it, is good.  Everyone feels good.  I do.  You do. I bet the ruling Party folks in Beijing do, too.

There is just one problem: China has two separate agendas here, and only one of them has been addressed in literally all of the writing on this subject.  Yes, the Chinese Communist Party insists on mind control over the Chinese people, preventing them from searching on any subjects it considers not in their interest, with Tiananmen Square being Exhibit A.

But there is another agenda item: China only wants its own Internet companies to prosper.  Time after time, it has put barriers, speed bumps and road blocks in the way of non-Chinese companies trying to get somewhere in the Chinese market.  In Google’s case, smart folks will remember when Google first came along, it was the clear choice for search, worldwide. 

Google’s first problems with the government were not about censorship, they were about the government intentionally delaying Google search results, in order to give Baidu a speed advantage.  Many studies have been done on this question, and inserting just a small – say a portion of a second – delay into server /search response, will tilt the competitive plain away from the slow site.

Because no one can complain about China and continue to do business there, Google very quietly complained about this treatment in the U.S. , and no one picked up on it.  Google did server checks inside and outside China at the time, and concluded that their internal searches were being delayed by the government.

Can you imagine the U.S. government – or the German, French or Australian governments – intentionally harming the performance of a non – domestic company’s online operations, as a policy matter?

Think about it.

Even today, China proudly points to how Baidu has a larger search market fraction than Google, as though this is Google’s fault, and so they somehow matter less.  Is this because Baidu is such an amazing engine?  Or is it thanks to a government that, as GE’s CEO Jeff Immelt said in Italy last week, “doesn’t want us to win.”

While the rest of the world is celebrating Google getting its silly little content license, let’s ask a much better question.  Are the smart guys behind the curtain in China happy to have this solution, knowing that adding another three to five seconds (vs. a fraction of a second previously)  to every search will accelerate their prior program of delaying Google search results, and thereby handing market share even more quickly to Baidu?

The answer, in my opinion, is “Yes.”  This way, it looks like capitalism and markets at work, with the Chinese champion winning, and without the embarrassment the country would have suffered if Google had just picked up and walked because of censorship.  Now, Google loses, Baidu wins, and everything is perfect.

Unless you want the truth in China.  Or unless you want to compete there fairly

I would be interested in informed comments, and please give your name when you comment.