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Why Google finally saw red in China

There's no polite way to put this. China is a rogue nation, a military dictatorship masquerading as a people's government. It's an apparent economic success in the short term, but its aspiration to become an economic superpower is not compatible with its political model.

business Updated: Jan 22, 2010 12:04 IST

There's no polite way to put this. China is a rogue nation, a military dictatorship masquerading as a people's government. It's an apparent economic success in the short term, but its aspiration to become an economic superpower is not compatible with its political model.

That's a system backed not by the people's will, but by raw military power. Its guiding principles are control and paranoia. All media, all information, is censored. If you politely disagree with the system, you are locked up for 11 years, if you're lucky. If you were in China writing what I am writing here in India, you would simply disappear.

So when the world's most influential tech company from the world's most influential nation bowed to this political system and launched a self-censored Google.cn search in January 2006, it wasn't sustainable. It was also incompatible with Google's corporate motto: "Don't Be Evil". Even with Google's justification that "increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results".

Most famously, if you simply search for Tiananmen Square on Google.com, you get tanks and bloodshed , but on Google.cn you get flowers and sunshine .

So even if David Drummond's Jan 12 blog post, "A new approach to China" shocked some people, it wasn't completely unexpected. Google's top lawyer's words were careful: "In mid-December, we detected a highly sophisticated attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China... what at first appeared to be solely a security incident, albeit a significant one, was something quite different."

But the meaning was clear: The Chinese government was targeting mail accounts of Chinese human rights activists in China. And that it had "routinely accessed" the Gmail accounts of dozens of human rights activists around the world.

Google, with 31 percent of the China Internet search market, isn't number one: That's Baidu, the home-grown web portal (58 percent share), and Baidu will be the biggest gainer if Google pulls out. China is an enormous online market, which claims to have jumped 28 percent in a year to 384 million Internet users, powered mainly by a 120 million jump in mobile Internet users, who reached 233 million. And the Chinese government will get rid of a potential thorn in its side, albeit one that is self-blunted.

But that's not all. Time was when Russia wore the mantle of the world's top rogue hacker nation, but China has overtaken it. The US, with its National Security Agency, the Central Security Service, the Central Intelligence Agency and others, is more subtle and sophisticated and maybe even more effective as a hacker nation. Israel is more focused.

Like the low-intensity conflict on India's borders, China has been waging a low-intensity cyberwar against India and other nations, against businesses even as it plays host to them, and against all those that it views as enemies, including human rights activists, and dissidents on its own soil.

Multinationals have chosen to ignore this, trading some discomfort for economic gain. China continues to bet that as long as it stays below a certain threshold, it will get away with it. It's a dangerous game that can backfire, and they may have just crossed that line with Google.

But they have pushed the envelope way more with India. M.K. Narayanan, who till a couple of days ago was the country's national security adviser, has admitted only to Chinese attacks on the Prime Minister's Office: There is no way our military agencies would admit to falling prey to cyber attacks.

The next war will be fought not with conventional or nuclear weapons, but in cyberspace. Despite our business technology prowess, India is the Athens to China's Sparta. We are ill equipped to fight that war.