Google’s New Approach on China

After suffering a series of cyber attacks, where hackers burrowed into computers to try to get into email accounts of its users in China, Google stunned the world with an about-faced announcement last week that it will no longer be censoring its search results in China and if China’s government has a problem with this, it may have to withdraw from the market.

In my opinion as a PR professional who has worked in China for many years, this stance of what amounts to an ultimatum for China’s government directly contrasts what I have been taught and what I have recommended clients do. The usual messaging that appears in most foreign companies’ press releases in China stresses commitment to the China market as well as support for China’s government agenda. With huge money at stake and the power that the government has over foreign businesses in China, this mindset has become the norm.

When Google first entered the market back in 2006, it took the same stand opting to censor its search results, feeling that not entering the market would do more to inhibit free access to information in the long run. Google, however, never seemed to be fully comfortable with this decision. Co-founder Sergey Brin told The Guardian in 2007 that Google’s actions resulted in a “net negative” for the company.

But now, with this recent announcement, it appears it has changed its attitude towards this…considerably. As my friend, William Moss, a public relations executive working in China put it on his Imagethief blog, “Google has taken the China corporate-communications playbook, wrapped it in oily rags, doused it in gasoline, and dropped a lit match on it.”

However, could this move have an unexpected PR windfall for Google globally? When Google entered China, many called into question the company’s motive and felt that the company was bending to the will of the government. This coupled with Google’s recent antitrust lawsuits and Google Book lawsuits, the company’s “Don’t be Evil” motto seems to have taken a backseat. With Google in need of some good PR, exiting the China market may inadvertently do the trick.

Some of the pros of leaving China are thus: Google will be seen as a company taking a principled position regarding free speech and a moral highroad over higher earnings. This will help garner it some goodwill in other parts of the world. In addition, the possible withdrawal from China will reinforce to its users the importance that it places on user privacy.

Public sympathy for Google seems to be occurring already. According to recent reports in the New York Times, The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online civil liberties group and frequent critic of Google, commended the company in a blog post titled “Uncensoring China — Bravo Google.” Human Rights Watch said that Google’s response to the attacks “sets a great example.” On Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats alike hail Google’s move.  And in China, young people have placed flowers in front of Google’s offices to pay their respect.

It will be interesting to watch how this plays out, but it seems likely Google will become a martyr for free speech and privacy on the internet … whether it wants to be or not.