Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Race to the Past

Although Read Write Web calls it the ongoing game of cat and mouse between China and Google, in my opinion, this hearkens back to the long history of colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Much of this tension stems from the Chinese government's suspicion and fear that Google is essentially bypassing Chinese firewalls and spreading Western influence into areas beyond Chinese control. Certainly, from a Western-centric viewpoint, this has always been about democratization and intellectual freedom. However, the same could be said in 1839, when the British aspired to open the doors to China for trade. Hence, the Google vs. China standoff is very much a commercial venture could very well be more about commerce than democracy. Instead of pulling out of China, Google certainly realizes the enormous wealth and lucrative markets of the Chinese, and it simply can't continue as a multinational giant by bypassing 1.31 billion of the world's population.

For that reason alone, rather than pulling out altogether, Google sidestepped any potential conflict this past winter by automatically redirecting its users from Google.cn to Google.com.hk, its Hong Kong search engine. This redirect, which offers unfiltered search in simplified Chinese, has been working well for its users and for Google, as it reports on its latest blog entry.

However, the PRC has stepped up its firmness, as government officials have made it clear that the automatic redirection to Google Hong Kong is no longer acceptable. Google's solution? Instead of redirecting users directly from Google.cn to Google.com.hk, the Chinese homepage will now simply link to its Hong Kong counterpart, which allows users to search free of censorship. As many have commented, the best Google can hope for is to find an acceptable middle ground so that it can honor its own commitment to unfiltered search results while working within the rules set by the Chinese government. And Hong Kong's Google site seems to be that solution, if not long-term, then at least temporarily.

It's interesting, and perhaps historically relevant that Hong Kong is the compromise. A landing spot for much of its history until its recent commercial success this latter part of the 20th century, Hong Kong has always been an entrepot, an entry point where migrants, travelers, and traders stationed temporarily to either evade state authorities or build support for political upheaval. In fact, Hong Kong is where the seeds of Sun Yat-sen's 1911 revolution had taken place. Almost 100 years later, Hong Kong finds itself enmeshed again between the two powers which divide the orient.

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