Chen Weihua

In quitting, Google misses its chance

By Chen Weihua (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-03-30 07:57
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If you want to help change China for the better, you should involve China and be there. Otherwise you won't have an impact on the country simply by claiming a high moral ground and distancing yourself from the place.

That's what I told Nieman curator Bob Giles several years ago when the prestigious journalism foundation decided to withdraw from a program to train Chinese government officials in handling the international media coming to cover the 2008 Beijing Olympics. That decision had left the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University alone for the weeklong sessions.

Giles, in his reply, said he did see the value in these types of training sessions. However the overwhelming protests from Nieman alumni gave him little choice.

It is unsure how many Chinese have heard of Nieman but what is apparent is that Nieman limited its own influence in China by dropping out of that program.

The recent announcement to leave China by Google and GoDaddy, an Internet domain registrar and web-hosting company, citing government censorship as the main reason, struck similarities with the Nieman retreat years ago, though the Google act is of a much bigger scale.

Google, Yahoo and other search engines have played a significant role in China's social transformation in the last decade simply by being in the country and making themselves available to the average Chinese. The impact on the people, society and politics from the fast developing Internet service should never be underestimated.

The progress has been achieved under a system that Google and GoDaddy said is underscored by censorship or self-censorship.

While some view Google's decision as courageous, some regard it as cowardly. Calling it quits is simply not the right attitude, given whatever hardship Google has encountered in operating in China. It is also not the spirit of the Silicon Valley, whose successful businesses often thrive after numerous failures.

For Chinese who google on a daily basis at home and at work, the departure of Google could well mean an inconvenient change in the access to information they are so used to. And since Google is such a powerful search engine and getting more powerful every passing day, some of its functions may not be replaced by its rivals, such as Baidu, which enjoys a much larger share than Google in the China market.

In this sense, the departure of Google has served as a barrier, rather than an aid, to the access to information for many Chinese.

Throughout much of the world, the Internet has contributed to the gradual openness of societies. Withdrawal of Google from China will only serve the opposite effect.

Although China's great social and economic transformation was chiefly engineered by Deng Xiaoping, it would be totally different without the participation of the rest of the world, such as having professors, students, manufacturers, tourists, books and movies from other countries coming to China for the last three decades.

The United States, for example, had very little impact on Cuba by banning its people from traveling to the island nation only 151 km away, and by enforcing an embargo on the country for some 50 years. That's the failure of someone who likes to claim self-righteousness.

If frustration justifies quitting, then many people, who find their ideals clashing with reality, should retire today.

Leaving China is an easy decision for Google to make. Staying on is a much tougher one. It would have enabled Google to have a more positive impact on the huge population in the long run.