Can Google Live Without China?
By Marquis Codjia
Op-eds in prominent newspapers around the world are discussing profusely the latest decision by Google to disengage from China in a move that epitomizes the search engine’s level of camaraderie with communist censors.
While few viewpoints offer a holistic examination of a complex issue that goes beyond the business sphere, the majority applaud Google’s shift as salutary to enhancing democracy in the Asian country.
The query nowadays in the western hemisphere is whether China can live without Google.
Many respond by the negative, citing, among others, the infancy of the country’s technology infrastructure and its limited number of qualified engineers; some even posit metaphorically that Beijing will be “in the darkness” after such exit.
Truth be told, China needs Google far less than the opposite. Hence, to the inverse question – can Google live without China? – the reasonable answer becomes yes.
Strategically, there is a superfluity of arguments attesting that the Mountain View, California-based technology mammoth is following the wrong path in handling its Chinese conundrum. Some of these arguments are specifically endogenous to the firm, whereas others are more varied in nature and closely inherent to the macro-environment in which the firm evolves.
Google does not divulge the size nor the profitability of its China business but it can be inferred, from the country ca. 400 million internet users, that Google.cn – its local portal – contributes a hefty part of the overall bottom line.
Gauging the firm’s scope of business in Mao’s republic implies factoring not only core search revenues but also the ancillary business derived from joint-ventures in Asia and Google’s own commercial undertakings.
The firm cannot ignore the potential cash-cow that Chinese internet users represent and the competitive pre-eminence that a local presence can proffer. The recent announcement from Google to move its local servers from the mainland to Hong Kong and end its censorship of searches does a disservice to the firm’s core business strategy because Google needs to be in China to win in the Chinese market, irrespective of the notorious practices of the nation’s economic climate.
Therefore, Ed Burnette is accurate in reiterating this viewpoint.
It is very momentous to acknowledge that China’s economic practices are far from fair and its socio-political system may at times be antithetical to paradigms experienced in other parts of the world. That China is not a democracy is commonplace rhetoric, yet many, if not all, Fortune 100 companies are keen to put basic tenets about free speech into oblivion and open a Chinese subsidiary.
Geostrategic factors at the macro-economic level are those that Google should pay thorough attention to. The firm is a leader in its industry and possesses reliable friends within the Obama administration – Andrew McLaughlin, its former head of global public policy, is currently the Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer in the Executive Office of the President. Yet, a company by itself cannot represent a major strategic player in the much larger and complex continuum of US – China relations.
Politicians are very economical with the truth when it comes to China. While they occasionally resort to rhetorical dissent vis-à-vis Beijing’s transgressions on democracy and issues relating to free speech, they all keep legendarily mum when it comes to coupling business with ethics.
They shouldn’t be necessarily blamed because there’s a variety of sibylline elements that make up transnational relations, and bi- or multi-lateral issues are not always simplistic with crystal clear solutions.
If Google pulls out of the mainland, it stands to lose billions of dollars in core revenues and collateral business. It will lose its dominance in the regional search business and such economic void will attract other rivals, which in the end will cripple the firm’s global market share.
This doom scenario is far from a Hollywood sci-fi episode. If Google exits, locals (such as Baidu) and major rivals like Microsoft’s Bing and Yahoo will doubtless grab the manna. Alternatively, new entrants may easily imitate the firm’s search model and take advantage of local authorities’ reprimand and develop their business.
There is a long list of Western multinationals operating in the mainland despite repeated protests from human rights activists. Think McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, Carrefour, Citibank, etc.
Collateral losses for Google are already reflecting China’s angry reaction after the search engine made its announcement; news media reported so far that Chinese mobile phone companies will drop Google or Android, its new mobile operating system.