Google in China should have known better

7 Comments
Google ChinaGoogle's announced intent to withdraw from China is certainly provocative news. Will it happen? I'll be surprised if it does, because the loss of face to China would be so great. But it may be that Google's strategists have come to the point where they realise that being polite and compliant only increases the demands on them. Most foreigners in China have to go through some painful experience in China before they realise this.

It recalls my experience ten years ago when I was sent by my academic employer to attend a ceremony sponsored jointly by our institution and a Chinese counterpart. The Chinese party commissar who handled the arrangements asked for my cv in advance. I translated it into Chinese, showing the Chinese name given me by my highly literate Chinese teacher 45 years ago, when I began to learn Mandarin.

I sent the translated cv in advance of my arrival. By the time I arrived, they had retyped the whole cv into their format. Most significantly, they had also substituted an officially prescribed phonetic translation of my Chinese name, rendering it immediately obvious to any reader that I am a foreigner, in place of the elegant and authentically Chinese name by which I've been known for decades.

When I objected to this invasion of my personal prerogatives and degradation of my identity, my handler told me that in China I must do things the Chinese way. I replied that for me to acknowledge any other Chinese name would be to show disrespect for my Chinese teacher. Finally, when he insisted, I said I would simply return to Melbourne, and not attend the ceremony.

In that instance, I was not acting; I meant it. And it worked. He immediately relented, and I realised that he had been disguising, through this petty bullying, his uncomfortable dependence on needing a conspicuously foreign-looking face to attend the ceremony in order to give an appearance of authenticity to the joint program. I concluded that the key in any negotiation with the Chinese is to identify what they need and exact my price for it.

So, did Google think their entering China could exert a force for China's 'opening up'? If so, I would suggest that they have deceived themselves.

Foreigners approaching China often fail to see the full depth of Chinese dynamics, because they have become blinded by their own cupidity and/or vanity. Chinese elites are adept at nurturing such attitudes in the foreigners who go to China. The carefully nurtured inscrutability racket, for example, is uncannily effective at promoting our suspension of disbelief, thus inducing the 'fascination' which renders us vulnerable to manipulation.

Has Google been blindsided by the hacking and theft of intellectual property? It would seem so. To address its sense of shock and awe, Google needs to realise that China is simply being China. First and foremost, Chinese government is about control. In any Chinese social situation, the basic ordering question is, ‘Who's in charge?'.

In that context, Google needs to ask how much control by Chinese bureaucrats it can tolerate. I hope that the recent news signifies that Google has reached its limit of tolerance for the relentless petty and not so petty humiliations and abuse which the Chinese system inevitably visits on it.

Rupert Murdoch was even more naïve, with his famously indiscreet remark that advances in communications technology posed an 'unambiguous threat' to authoritarian regimes. Later, after huge losses, he made a public statement of withdrawal from China, not without considerable bitterness.

These people not only don't know enough about China, they don't know where to look to learn. Each thinks he'll be the first one to break out of the old pattern. They need to read Yale historian Jonathan Spence's 1980 book, To Change China: Western Advisors in China, 1620–1960, written just after the US established diplomatic relations, as troops of consultants and technical advisors of various and sundry stripes trooped off to Beijing and Shanghai.

And they need to read the translated works of Han Feizi, the philosopher of centralised imperial authority in China. The spirit of that school of thought has been at the core of the perennial state system of China for the last 2000 years. Just imagine if the Roman Empire had continued in Europe to the present.

I would also venture a further personal opinion. Murdoch's comment expresses an especially silly idea, which unfortunately is widely shared, that cybernetic technology is inherently liberal in its nature, and creates freedom. Maybe it's just a marketing slogan, but if the marketers come to believe their own propaganda, they reveal their own lack of intellectual depth.

On the contrary, such technology is directed at control. The Greek word 'cyber' is cognate with the Latin word 'govern'. In ancient Greek, a kubernetes is a helmsman who steers a boat. The Chinese intuitively understood that, because their own philosophical principles are devoted principally to enhancing centralised state power.

I'm further reminded of an article which appeared in the English language China Daily in the late 1990s. This newspaper's contents represent entirely the views of central authorities, and are directed in large part at forming opinion among the foreign community resident in China.

In this article, a commentator congratulated foreign companies for developing new industries in China with imported technology, and then went on to congratulate local companies which responded to the stimulus and 'recovered the lost markets'.

My question is, 'What lost markets?' No market existed before the foreign firms created them. To call that a 'lost market' exposes the fundamental attitude that everything in China will always belong only to the Chinese, and that foreign firms will never have true 'ownership' of anything.

The cynicism, from my perspective, of that comment confirmed in my mind fundamental conclusions of a similar nature which I formed after working for six months in Beijing in 1980. The more it changes, the more it stays the same. That's what Google and everyone else need to understand about China's so-called 'opening up'.


Thomas BartlettDr Thomas Bartlett is Honorary Research Associate at Latrobe University. His research interests include early modern Confucian statecraft.

 

Topic tags: Thomas Bartlett, Google, China, authoritarian, rupert murdoch, Han Feizi, Jonathan Spence, To Change China

 

 

submit a comment

Existing comments

Thank you for this article which I very much enjoyed. I am fascinated by the idea of "early modern Confucian statecraft" - is there a reference or article to explore this more fully?
Joe McGirr | 22 January 2010


I wouldn't be surprised if Google do pull out of China – in that market they have considerable opposition from Robin Li’s Baidu which holds more than 60% of the PRC’s search market [Analysis International] albeit with the approval of the powers-that-be. Robin is one of the most canny marketers I have ever met.

I spent over a decade working in the PRC and understand the loss of face you would have suffered with your name change at the ceremony particularly one in the education arena.

On the other hand I was amazed at the speed of change in the years before I left –when SARS hit Beijing in 2003 – but always with a Chinese partner and ‘in the Chinese manner’. One of the key driving forces is not to go down the same road as the USSR after its break up.
I fully endorse your opinion about the 'naivety' of Rupert Murdoch’s and most foreigners' perception of the Chinese manner.

Dr. Jim Montgomery | 22 January 2010


Incredibly interesting article, thanks Thomas. I am not sure that the internet is a mechanism of control, however. Certainly it is evident the will of Chinese government is bent towards controlling information over the internet, however I disagree that such technology is directed towards control. Indeed it is antithetical to the way the internet has evolved.

Information in the internet flows freely like water. Governments only serve to obstructions to this flow. China has created the Great Dam. How long will it stand?
Tim Graham | 22 January 2010


I wouldn't be surprised if Google do pull out of China – in that market they have considerable opposition from Robin Li’s Baidu which holds more than 60% of the PRC’s search market [Analysis International] albeit with the approval of the powers-that-be. Robin is one of the most canny marketers I have ever met.
I spent over a decade working in the PRC and understand the loss of face you would have suffered with your name change at the ceremony particularly one in the education arena.
On the other hand I was amazed at the speed of change in the years before I left –when SARS hit Beijing in 2003 – but always with a Chinese partner and ‘in the Chinese manner’. One of the key driving forces is not to go down the same road as the USSR after its break up.

I fully endorse your opinion about the naiveté of Rupert Murdoch and most foreigners perception of the Chinese manner.
Dr. Jim Montgomery | 22 January 2010


The West entered China with a slogan - to change China by investments, etc. The last Olympic Game proves they have changed nothing but making China's communist party more confident. As they went in declaring such and such - it turns up their big mouths can only bite their own tongues. And once they have no tongues, they don't speak any longer - let alone on human right issues. That includes Australia.

In the case of Google, it needs to stand by its words. As it said - it'd pull out, it rather do it. It might lose some money that it can make elsewhere - but it can't buy back its face after it sold it to the communists. If it doesn't keep its words, Google can become willful collaborator officially - now it can claim it is hacked and not collaborating with the officials who won't find the hackers who are themselves.
AZURE | 22 January 2010


Dr Bartlett's name game problem reminds me of a story way back in Jamaica. My Chinese/Jamaican colleague arrives at Queen's University Toronto to read for a doctorate in English. He is presented an ETS TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) before they will register him. He declined. They said it was mandatory for foreign students. He said to them to fly him straight back to Kingston. They caved in. I guess we can all play what I like to call 'silly buggers', Chinese or otherwise!!!
Lady Fong | 24 January 2010


A wakeup call to all who dare to go to China with the idea that they can change China. China simply 'absorbs' any 'invaders' - they have been doing it for thousands of years!

A study of Chinese history and culture should be mandatory for all intending to work in China and our bureaucrats who deal with their Chinese counterparts.
Gavin | 31 January 2010


Similar Articles

Tony Abbott and the price of virginity

  • Catherine Marshall
  • 29 January 2010

Tony Abbott and I have something in common: we've both been having the sex talk with our teenage daughters. The bizarre glorification of virginity and the latent distaste of our daughters' sexuality removes the very power with which we strive to arm them.

READ MORE

'Hysterical' Indian media speak the truth

  • Michael Mullins
  • 25 January 2010

Before Australia's racism can be dealt with, political leaders must follow General Peter Cosgrove in acknowledging its existence. Their reluctance to support his remarks could reflect their fear of speaking hard truths in a year of multiple elections.

READ MORE

We've updated our privacy policy.

Click to review