Google was right to do a deal with Beijing

A Chinese TV programme designed to wean addicts from the internet once called it “the electronic opium of the people”. nicely marrying Marx on religion with memories of the Opium Wars. So there will be no lack of officials who will say good riddance to Google, if it pulls out, and all who surf on her.

Foreign search engine companies have had a tough time in China. “A moral pygmy,” the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee called Yahoo!’s chief executive when it helped the Chinese to lock up a journalist, and Cisco Systems got into similar trouble for supplying the regime with equipment for the Great Chinese Firewall.

In 2006 Google agreed to censor its services in accordance with Chinese security desires (no coverage of Tiananmen Square, democracy etc) in return for agreement to set up its China operation. The company had previously fought off attempts by the US Department of Justice to make it reveal what domestic users were searching for. Talk about dual-value systems.

With their short-term avidity, capitalists were willing to “sell us the rope with which we will hang them”, mocked Lenin. The cyber-folk stood accused of something worse: selling the Chinese Communists the rope to round up freedom-loving Chinese.

As Google saw it, the agreement could be justified on the ground that the short-term, ahem, moral ambiguity would be justified by a long-term engagement with a progressively more open regime that its service would itself foster. It was then that its chief executive pronounced: “China is a nation with a 5,000-year-old history. That could indicate the duration of our patience.” Only a few years later that patience has been exhausted, as the company accuses China of attacks on its systems to pursue dissidents.

It seemed to me that Google had a case in 2006, because its argument was opposed to the absolutist view: that the choice lay between some censorship and offering nothing at all. Businesses, especially big ones, are in this respect like countries. The British and US governments never stopped sponsoring plays or exhibitions in the Soviet Union because it declined to open the gates to everything we produced: the British Council just did what it could at the time (including sending me as a postgraduate to Moscow University).

When Google opened up in Beijing things looked promising enough, not just financially but in the context of a hesitantly modernising China, for it to place its bet, holding its nose as it signed. If you are going to operate in a sovereign country at all, Google argued, you have to respect local laws. What it could never say was: “Look at the compromises governments and businesses make in Muslim countries every day, on freedom of Christian worship or the repression of women in Saudi Arabia, for God’s sake, before you condemn the cyber-folk in China out of hand.”

So Google’s decision passes moral muster. Philosophers have a handy shorthand for these dilemmas: the ethics of an act depends on a balance of the aims, means and consequences. I am not keen on businesses talking about their “mission”, as Google tends to but in the nature of its business it was indeed helping the enlightenment process, as well as shareholders’ returns.

So the aims were OK. The means, the murky compromises, were, on balance, acceptable too. The consequences — China’s hacking into the accounts of suspect internet users — are where things have come unstuck. But that is China’s responsibility. Delicate ethical balances can tilt and collapse in the prevailing wind, which, on human rights has shifted, Google claims, in the wrong direction.

Its spokesmen deny that it’s all about money, and protest that it has had a good year and good prospects. I am not so sure: with a fair wind from the regime, the Chinese search engine Baidu has been progressing. The brute fact is that when it began Google had a defensible deal. As a result of a tougher Chinese line now it hasn’t. Ironically this is partly a result of the financial crisis, which has made the regime nervous.

Now China has a choice. It can explode in nationalistic indignation at Google’s “calumny”. Or it can accept the offer to renegotiate its deal to provide a non-filtered service, quietly reining in those guilty of attacking the system to trap dissidents.

“China feels like an old tin of beans”, Ma Jian, the acclaimed author of Red Dust, has written, “that, having lain in the dark for 40 years, is beginning to burst at the seams.” Notice that he does not say the tin will explode. Just as China is bursting on to the international scene, to the benefit of itself and to us, its people are bursting the old confines of their minds. The problem is for the Government to understand that the two are part of the same process. If it can’t, that will delay China’s full emergence into the world.

The Chinese I meet, irrespective of their political views, are uniformly proud of their country’s progress. Hardly surprising: since Tiananmen the integration of its economy and foreign policy with the international community and the refurbishment of its image has been pursued with great intelligence. (Contrast Russia, for example.) The Google affair is shaping up into something of a test case.

China is a country, if ever there was one, that can afford to trust its people’s patriotism. Let’s hope that it does the intelligent thing, tempers its reaction, and gets into quiet talks with Google.

George Walden, a former diplomat and the author of China: A Wolf in the World?