Google’s lack of coherence on its China strategy

Earlier this year, when Google said it was no longer willing to tolerate China’s censorship, I had written about how its rationale didn’t exactly hold, and what the potential outcomes were. Google later dodged the bullet (somewhat) by redirecting its Chinese portal to its .hk site.

Well, that was a temporary fix, as Google’s China ICP license is up for renewal, and they need to appease the Chinese government. Google is again trying to do so with a half-measure.

The Atlantic has a good summary of major tech blogs’ response. Opinions are somewhat divided on how things will progress, but if anything no one is talking about how moral and upright Google is, this time around. Good. In my original piece back in January I had argued how dubious Google’s stance was:

… a cyber-attack is illegal by any country’s law, whereas what is censored and what is not censored can be different due to country-specific issues like religion or in the case of China, politics. So for Google to use the hacker attacks as justification that it can’t tolerate Chinese censorship anymore is somewhat dubious, since this is not exactly the same issue.

Google’s latest announcement just further confirms my position. It seems that, after all, Google does care about its business prospects in China; but it appears to be too smart for its own good, trying to get away with both being morally righteous and doing business as usual.

Read this together with another piece of news today, which talks of Google’s ambitions for Android in China and India, and I’m starting to feel that Google internally does not have a coherent strategy for China. Obviously, having a row with the Chinese government is not good for business, especially when looked at from the Chinese perspective – nothing had changed in the government’s policy throughout the years of Google China’s existence, and Google’s January fit seemed completely out of left field (again, cyber-attacks and government censorship are very different things).

I remember a few months back, at an investors event in San Francisco, Kai-fu Lee, the former head of Google China, had mentioned in passing how his company – Innovation Works, a early stage VC / incubator – had a few projects that were basically picking up the development of Android in China after the Google debacle (if my memory serves me correctly). Essentially, quite a few Chinese companies are interested in Android, but dealing with Google has become a politically charged issue, so you’d almost have to have an intermediary. This is especially true of the major Chinese carriers – it is unthinkable to see China Mobile do a high profile partnership with Google while this political spat is ongoing.

Google needs to work out its priorities. If it wants business in China, it needs to drop its high talk and start showing genuine long-term commitment to the market – otherwise it will be hard to retain its Chinese business partners, and it will always be a distant second.

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2 thoughts on “Google’s lack of coherence on its China strategy”

  1. Nan,
    Once I read your Nokia – MeeGo vs Android comments on gigaom.com I knew that you were intelligent, but I loved the final summation: “great execution will make any strategy look smart, whereas failure to execute will not save even the best strategy on paper.”

    Low and behold, I clicked your name and found this blog. I must say, this is extremely well done. Having four friends from China I only get some idea of the culture there. You do a great job of illuminating the relevant aspects, in terms of technology, of one of the most valuable markets in the world. Of course, your other insights are really well thought and articulated as well. I can honestly see your writings being in The New York Times. I look forward to perusing the site and reading the rest of the articles.

    I can only say that I hope you keep posting and that your blog is read by many. Keep up the great work!

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