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By Steve Kelman

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Strangling Google in China?

china cyber

While in China recently, I tried Googling a name I wanted to learn more about. Google is not blocked in China, but it has had a very poor relationship with the Chinese government, and it has moved its server to Hong Kong. Gradually, Google's Chinese market share has gotten smaller and smaller, and it is totally dominated by its home-grown competitor Baidu – though I know a number of Chinese students who want better access to American material who use Google. (China is, I believe, the only country in the world where Google doesn't have the leading market share in search.)

The words I searched were in no way politically sensitive, and more than a million hits came up. I then tried to click through to some of the articles and ... nothing happened. I didn't get the "Internet Explorer Cannot Display This Webpage" screen that typically occurs when one tries to access a blocked website, such as Facebook or a forbidden word search. I double-clicked, the entry highlighted itself, and then nothing came up – I just stayed on the Google page.

Frustrated by this experience, I asked a group of Harvard alumni at a dinner sponsored by my wonderful former student Eugene Wang about what I had experienced, wondering whether it was some problem with my computer.

No, I was told – this is part of the Google user experience in China. Not all the time, but on a random basis, users have trouble connecting to some or all of the hits that come up on Google searches. Everyone in the group had experienced these problems.

The inhibited access tends to be worse around sensitive events (such as the annual meeting of the National People's Congress this last March) or their anniversaries, somebody told me.

(I tried the same search again just before writing this blog post. Some links came through – bizarrely, links to books on the Amazon website – while others had the same no-reaction I had experienced earlier. And others, not politically sensitive I wouldn't think, were greeted with "Internet Explorer Cannot Display This Webpage.")

So what seems to be going on is that, rather than just blocking Google in China, the authorities are making it so annoying and unreliable to use that people will just stop using it altogether, and it will die on the vine.

This seems to be another version of the humiliation Apple Computer was put through a few months ago after being raked over the coals on the annual television World Consumer Day gala for trivial consumer-protection infractions in a country where thousands of dead pigs are found in the river outside Shanghai and people are dying of cadmium poisoning in rice. (I blogged about this at the time.) Eventually, Apple President Tim Cook felt it necessary to issue a public apology for the company's behavior, an incident reported in Western media at the time as reflecting an effort to make clear that Apple existed in China, a crucial market for the company, only at the government's sufferance.

Chinese blog readers, thoughts or reactions?

Posted on May 30, 2013 at 12:09 PM


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Reader comments

Mon, Jun 3, 2013

Dear Steve,thank you very much for sharing this very important and interesting article with us. Yes, it is really an issue, which needs to be resolved. LH

Fri, May 31, 2013 Former Googler in China Hong Kong

Dr. Kelman, I read your blog with great interest, probably due to the fact that I was once a Googler, back in 2005, and helped in setting up Google's operation in the Middle Kingdom. As a long time expat in China, it upsets (if not infuriates) me a great deal whenever I heard comments referencing to Google's services being 'unreliable'. Yet comments of such is fast becoming the norm; even for the modestly savvy, everyday netizens. Big Brother in ZhongNanHai has successfully instilled the notion that Google overall product offering within China is at best unreliable; and at worst, subpar to the rest of the world given its lack of commitment to China (service redirect to Hong Kong since 2008). I always lament to friends and associates that the one glowing 'triumph' the CCP can unabashedly claimed since its power assumption in 1949 is the manner in which its citizens are being brain washed. I'd come across a growing masses of college graduate, and even working professional, whom professed they gave up on Google due to its service unreliability. Their utter refusal to admit that their own government is behind such elaborate scheme of interference is bewildering to me to say the least. Such blind, if not jingoistic approach towards one's government is something I can never comprehend, no matter how long I have been living / working in Beijing. That said, Google's near dormant approach to such overt government intervention is equally puzzling. That said, I guess even with all its technology know how and war chest, there is only so much a publicly listed company can do when confronted with the might of the ruling party in the country of 1.3 billion. Maybe that's the reason you see me and many China Googlers voted with my feet, and decided to continue our career elsewhere.

Fri, May 31, 2013 Happy China

Google is some kind of vehicle like media, which is politically sensitive. Chinese government always likes good boys who are obedient and honeymouthed rather than a treacherous kid.

Thu, May 30, 2013

Given the xenophobic prejudice against Huawei and ZTE and other Chinese entities in America, why should Google expect any better treatment? Google is lucky that Beijing did not pull a Washington, and ordered all not to deal with Google. What is good must be universal.

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