It is a cliche that things happen faster on the internet, but even that fails to explain the rapid collapse of relations between Google and the Chinese government.
The entire affair seems to have unfolded in just a few weeks, beginning in January and ending on Monday with the internet giant’s decision to redirect its Chinese web visitors to its Hong Kong site instead.
The conflict began when an unidentified computer hacker tried to break into Google’s servers before Christmas. At that point, few could have predicted that events would quickly evolve into an open battle between one of the world’s most powerful companies and a political superpower.
But when Google went public about the attacks in January, it was not only a swipe at Beijing, but also the culmination of several years of behind-the-scenes infighting at Google. After years of tension, a situation that had been heating up suddenly hit boiling point.
Google’s forays into China began in 2006, when it announced that it would launch a censored version of its search engine, for Chinese users.
While the business decisions behind the move were obvious, the decision seemed at odds with Google’s dedication to free information and its “don’t be evil” mantra.
Indeed, an agonised internal debate at the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters had preceded the move. Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who was born in Moscow, but left Russia before the collapse of communism, was a well-known advocate for free speech. Despite support from his fellow co-founder, Larry Page, however, he was eventually voted down by Google’s chief executive, Eric Schmidt, a man who proved more pragmatic than idealistic.
“Chinese users will ultimately receive a search service that is fast, always accessible, and helps them find information both in China and from around the world,” the company said.
It did not take long, however, for Google to start regretting its actions. Its vast array of websites and services were hit by regular blockades from China’s “great firewall”, and the flak from activists began to chip away at the company’s previously friendly image.
With the situation becoming more difficult and less profitable, support grew for Brin and Page’s position. Once the details of the hacking became public, the rift between senior management grew.
What may have encouraged Google to take drastic action is that there is little for it to lose financially. Despite the vast sums it has sunk into its Chinese operation, the profit is still relatively small. In China, it runs in second place to the homegrown challenger, Baidu.