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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

How Google got too hot for China's kitchen


It is one of the positives of my largely happy life that I never found myself in the field of public relations with a client like Beijing. It's not that there aren't many wondrously good stories about China — hundreds of millions of otherwise dirt-poor people moving up into a better economic life, etcetera — and others we still have to learn about. But as long as old geezers in Beijing are still calling the biggest shots for the globe's most populated nation, China remains an account no one would want.

How many times have they been warned not to remind people of horrible Tiananmen Square? OK, the Chinese hacking of Google's e-mail accounts in China reaches not quite the same order of malevolence as the bloody head-cracking that took place in China's capital in June 1989. But, symbolically, the two cases are too close for comfort: Both are examples of dealing with dissent and uncertainty with force. In the end, the people with egg — if not blood — on their face are those that pull the trigger or encourage the repressive hacking of "dissident" e-mail accounts.

To be sure, having to work on the side of U.S. corporate public relations would exactly not be my cup of sake, either. But if I had to do it, there are clients far worse to have than Google. By the simple gesture of protesting the Chinese hacking, Google wound up atop the moral high ground — almost by default.

Perhaps Google's moguls indeed were naive to think that China would cease being a censorship regime as time went on. But that's not the issue. The Chinese government can censor all it wants, any time it wants, for whatever reason it wants; after all, it is a sovereign state. But when it agrees to do business with an American company whose core business is servicing clients in a reasonably open way, it has a responsibility to not muck around with that business. If Beijing couldn't stand the heat that Google's e-mail operations brought into the country, it should never have let it into the kitchen.

Note that the telling divisions in public reaction in China to the Google case really does reinforce the sense that there are at least two Chinas. First, there are the traditionalists, who buy into the bread-instead-of-political-freedom approach and could care less about Google's problems.

But then there are the Chinese yuppies, growing in number, comprising a new technocratic class and helping to drive the emerging middle class of China. This new class is increasingly influential and, from the Communist Party's perspective, perhaps increasingly dangerous.

In a sense the central government and party is a victim of its own success. Now that so many people who were once ill-fed, ill-clothed and filled with hopelessness are no longer in such a state, they are looking to put new ideas in their heads as well as fresh bread on the table. For China, then, the Google affair must be considered as a setback.

To illustrate: In the late '90s, I had a confidential meeting with a man whose intellect and judgment anyone would greatly respect. He was a top professor from China's hugely influential Central Party School. The meeting was billed as an "informal exchange of views," as these things tend to be dubbed, but before too long the professor got to his point: How can China develop a better image in the United States? The answer was obvious: Get rid of that brutal Tiananmen tank image and replace it with something kinder and gentler.

And, in fact, that's exactly what the Chinese did — brilliantly — with the 2008 Beijing Olympics: The "bird cage stadium" became the new icon of an emerging China.

But now they are almost back to Tiananmen Square one. When unflashy Chinese President Hu Jintao visits Washington later this month, he ought to flash the cameras a smile and announce a rapprochement with Google. (To help Hu save face, perhaps the Google-ites should present China's leader with some kind of "I'm Feelin' Lucky" award or something like that?)

It won't happen, of course, because some inside (and outside) China believe that it is now so big and tough that it no longer matters what its image is. That's a mistake: Image is important whether you are Mother Teresa, the Catholic Church or, well, Google.

As for Google, I must say that it's nice to see an American corporation for once looking like it may come out more than just OK. So Google loses the Chinese market? That may not be such a bad thing. Just ask media mogul Rupert Murdoch whether it's easy for a media company to make money in China. These days Murdoch is probably even more frustrated than Google.

So are a lot of people, alas. The Chinese government's present default positionon certain key issues is destined to cause some Western ventures to melt down — or run away.

Syndicated columnist and veteran U.S. journalist Tom Plate (who uses Google e-mail) is a senior fellow at the University of Southern California's Center for the Digital Future and a board member of the Pacific Century Institute. © 2010 Pacific Perspectives Media Center.


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