The recent flap about Google's presence in China is, indeed, more than a flap. Google claims that their servers were violated, along with some others. The idea that some official entity got to mucking about not only with Google but with some US corporate property in cyberspace seems not to be part of the Chinese discussion, but news about Google's unhappiness with Chinese censorship certainly is. To be sure, the security issue is an important one, and censorship is, too. But another issue is the difference bewteen Internet use in China and in the US (and elsewhere).
Google is not, presently, a good fit for China. By now, most folks who are interested in Internet in China are aware of the power of MSN and QQ. Not everyone sees this as a basic difference in communication practice. It might be easy to pin the difference on "cultural difference," but this begs the question of where that difference comes from. Tricia Wang lays out the issues in a lengthy and important post on her blog. Her comments neatly summarize the experience of our research teams (and my personal experience living from time to time in Beijing and here and there) over the past ten or so years. Tyler Rooker at his 中关村 blog has some pithy remaks about Google's hubris that are worth a read, too). Chinese sites like Baidu (for search) and TuDou (for video) are simply more relevant in China.
The differences among Google and other web tools in China extends to mobile phone use, too. It is is related to the pragmatic constraints of access, charges for phone and Internet use, and the services Google offers. Here are some of the issues (covered well by Tricia; I add a bit to her list, here):
- Google doesn't provide access to the rich media content that other sites do.
- The name "Google" is not well understood people aren't sure how to spell it.
- Google has not tapped into the sense of national pride as other domestic IT products have done. Consider the line of peripherals and monitors made by the "aigo" company. Aigo sounds just like "aiguo," which means love of country or patriotism (爱国).
- Google is not a player in instant messaging. QQ, the biggest player in instant messaging in China (and, probably, in the world) is much more than an instant messaging system. Its a game platform, it is always integrated in Chinese mobile phones, and it has brand exensions into cute, cuddly products in QQ stores. It has lent its name to a small automobile, the QQ car, which is, by the way, very 可爱的, very "cute" (sounds like QQ). Nothing wrong with a little alliterative fun in IT.
- Google is not really a player in the mobile space in China, where asynchronous communication is cheaper and preferred. Mobile phones are nearly ubiquitous regardless of income. Few people talk much on their mobile phones. People get their business done quickly on the phone, unless they are rich. Ordinary people text plenty, but minutes are expensive. Text and QQ are not. Where is Google?
- The competition is working in another space in which Google is inactive: buying and selling little low-cost goodies related to games, identity, and just plain fun. QQ has developed Qcoin, a virtual currency that is so successful that the Chinese government is stepping in to regulate folks who trade in it. (QQ says Qcoin is a commodity, not a currency, btw).
- Google makes sense for richer, post-graduate people; there is enormous interest in the Internet as an educational resource but for lower-income people but Google is off the map. A decent desktop is certainly not off the map, even for folks of humble means (like the household in the photograph). IT matters to families who care about their children's future; Google is not seen as a partner in that regard. Why not?
Tricia Wang is quite correct. It would be a pity if Google were to give up on China, and it would help neither China nor Google nor the future of the conversation about Internet freedom and privacy if they were to give up the ship in the Middle Kingdom.