If Google.cn Will Soon Disappear, Should Google “Burn Its Boats” On The Way Out?

[Note: This post originally appeared on DigiCha, my blog on the Internet and digital media in China.]

The Financial Times reported Saturday that Google is “99.9 percent certain” that it will shut its China search engine at Google.cn. It has been eight weeks since Google said it would no longer censor search in China.

The Chinese government has handled this much better than expected given, from their perspective, Google’s very public provocation. They did not do anything rash, like preemptively shutting Google.cn, possibly on the pretense of porn on Google.cn (which amazingly is still there if you look hard enough). Instead, they reiterated that all companies in China need to obey Chinese law and waited for Google to make a move. I have no specific knowledge of Google’s attempts to negotiate, though “negotiate” is probably not what the Chinese government was doing when it came to a discussion about providing unfiltered search results.

If Google, as the FT reports, has a plan for the closure of Google.cn, what is in it? Will Google go quietly, shutting the site while trying hard to retain other apects of their $300-350m/yr business, like a sales network for ads on Google.com and Android handset and developer relationships? Wouldn’t that open them to charges of partial “appeasement” and “still doing evil”? Or will Google go out in a blaze of glory (Chinese might use the proverb ????-“cut off all means of retreat; burn one’s boats”), taking the filters off and forcing the government to shut Google.cn?

As I understand it, Google has always been quite concerned about the safety of the legal representative (faren ??) and shareholders of the PRC domestic firm that holds its key Internet operating licenses in China, and so those people (I think 4 in total) are outside the PRC as much as possible, it not permanently. If they were in the country and Google decided to try to run Google.cn without filters, those people could easily be arrested. But if they are not here, it is unclear who in the company would actually be in legal jeopardy according to Chinese law. (The government has probably figured this out, so expect a new regulation requiring that faren and shareholders be present in the PRC.)

It could be quite viscerally satisfying to see Google burn its bridges by forcing the government to take action against an unfiltered Google.cn and then publicly disclosing all sorts of information and issues that it had to deal with over the last few years. They probably will not do that, as they likely hope that they can salvage some vestiges of a business in China and a “working relationship” with the Chinese government.

The closure of Google.cn will damage China, from discrediting its soft power campaign to rattling foreign businesses to upsetting a key constituency of educated and white-collar Chinese. Google is naive if they think they can close or force the closure of Google.cn and still retain any sort of a positive relationship with the Chinese government.

From the perspective of its global business, Google may now have more to gain by “burning its boats” in China.

Please tell me what you think in the comments. You can also follow my much more frequent updates on Twitter @niubi.

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