Posts tagged: Adam Segal

Google & China: Is it Really About Censorship?

By , March 30, 2010
Is it St. George or Google that Slays the Dragon?

Is it St. George or Google that Slays the Dragon?

Google has become the Western media’s new Saint George.  With its pullout from China last week and its refusal to submit to the Chinese government, Google slew the dragon of censorship, or at least that is the story being marketed by the press.

But if we look back to Google’s announcement from January 12, 2010, the catalyst of Google’s troubles in Beijing had little to do with censorship.  Instead, what initiated Google’s eventual withdrawal from China was the hacking attack of its computer infrastructure and the theft of valuable intellectual property.  Absent this attack, would Google have left China?  How did we go from a cyber-attack to a principled stance on censorship and why?  And is relying on Google to promote human rights a good thing?

Don’t Be Evil….Unless it Doesn’t Correspond with Shareholders’ Interests

Google claims that its informal motto of “don’t be evil” is a central pillar of its corporate core values.  But in reality, its motto can only be applied to the extent that it does not conflict with shareholders’ interest.

Google is a publicly traded company and as such, its primary duty to is to its shareholders, usually achieved through the maximization of profits.  This isn’t just a precept of sound business; it is an actual requirement of the law.  In the U.S., directors and officers of a corporation have certain fiduciary duties toward the corporation’s shareholders; if an officer or director acts in a way that breaches these duties, shareholders may bring an action against the board of directors and the officers.   This is to guarantee that the directors and officers act in good faith toward a corporation’s shareholders and make decisions based upon reasonable business interests and not upon personal ones.

Before Google made its January 12 announcement, rest assured that it probably checked with legal counsel to guarantee that shareholders could not bring a suit against it for violating fiduciary duties.  Most likely someone wrote a memo analyzing the merits of shareholders’ potential claims against Google for pulling out of the largest internet market in the world.

The current China internet market totals around 348 million users, more than the population of the United States but Google profitsless than a third of China’s potential internet population of 1.3 billion people.  With such an untapped potential, even if Google maintained its 33% market share of the Chinese search market, it could potentially reach 429 million people.

Can walking away from a market that potentially could be that big ever be justified to shareholders on the grounds of Google’s censorship?

Likely not.  A rational shareholder purchases shares of Google not because of its founders’ stance on censorship in China but more for high return on its equity investment; in other words, profits through increased share price.

So how does Google get away with avoiding a shareholder lawsuit?

First, Google’s foray into China resulted in marginal benefits for the company.  Google did not enter the Chinese market with its Chinese search engine google.cn until January 2006 (to understand the difference between google.cn and google.com see CL&P’s previous article).  However, prior to 2006, Chinese internet users were able to access the U.S.-based search engine, google.com.  At the end of 2005, just through the use of the U.S.-based google.com, Google already had 27% of the Chinese search engine market.  Fast-forward to 2010, four years after it launched its censored Chinese search engine, Google was only able to raise its market share six percentage points to 33%.  Even with its withdrawal from the Chinese mainland, Chinese internet users will still have access to Google either through its U.S.-based search engine, google.com, or its newly established Hong Kong-based search engine, google.com.hk.  Thus, Google’s market share in China will likely continue to hover around 30%.  So the impact of Google’s withdrawal on its profits is relatively small, staving off a shareholder lawsuit.  If profits in China were higher, would Google still have left?  Maybe not.

Furthermore, the initial reason behind Google’s departure – a cyber-attack – is likely sufficient to justify giving up the domestic China market and the meager increased profits.  Although the cyber-attack has been pushed to the background, it’s actually a pretty big deal.  The attack on Google, which was coordinated with an attack on over 30 other western high tech companies, resulted in the theft of proprietary source code and other intellectual property.  While Google hasn’t openly discussed the extent of the cyber-attack, Adam Segal of the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on cyber-espionage, hypothesizes that the Chinese hackers made substantial inroads in obtaining some of Google’s core technologies, namely “how it collects information on users and how it uses it to exploit its [Google’s] market advantage.”  This is information that is core to Google’s success and not something that it wants hackers to be able to access.  Any gains from protecting this information far outweighs the losses of shutting down its Chinese search engine.

Cyber-attacking or Playing the Art of Warcraft?

Cyber-attacking or Playing the Art of Warcraft?

Why then the censorship angle?  First, companies don’t really like to announce their vulnerabilities to cyber-attacks.  It’s not surprising that not a single company out of the other 30 that were attacked has stepped forward.  But second, and perhaps slightly cynically, the censorship angle is a marketing bonanza for Google.  Google is the West’s white knight, and although its share price has dropped significantly since it first threatened to leave China, it could have fallen lower absent the positive press surrounding its departure.

And if this was really just about the censorship, why did it take over two months for Google to leave the mainland?  The Chinese government is not about to give up on censorship, as Google executives must be keenly aware of.  So why prolong it?  And if censorship is so abhorrent to Google’s mission, why continue to promote your Android technology on Chinese mobile networks?  Censorship in China is not limited to computers.  A tremendous amount of censorship and surveillance also occurs on mobile devices.

Google’s principle stance against censorship likely has merit and its belief in “don’t be evil” isn’t idle chatter.  But in regards to Google’s withdrawal from China, censorship was neither the only nor the primary reason for its departure.

What’s the Big Deal if Google wants to Say it Left because of the Censorship?

First, by relegating the cyber-attack aspect of the Google-China incident to the background, the press, U.S. government and corporate America avoid confronting what some call the greatest threat to U.S. prosperity.  Adam Segal – in an interview on Digital Age – offered a sobering account of cyber-espionage and the U.S.’ lack of preparation to deal with this increasingly sophisticated threat.  Although previously focused on military secrets, Mr. Segal argued that the threat is increasingly on corporate secrets.  One of the last vestiges of the U.S.’ success lies in its intellectual property.  But cyber-espionage, especially by the Chinese, puts this very much at risk.  Before, companies avoided intellectual property theft by not doing business in China or setting up an office there.  But now, with increasingly sophisticated hacking, companies can no longer avoid the risk that their research and development is vulnerable – the physical location of a company’s R&D does not matter.  According to Rahm Emanuel, “never let a serious crisis go to waste.”  But that is exactly what happened here.  Every discussion about Google – from the press to Capitol Hill to the Administration –  has been about censorship, not about the more serious threat to the U.S.’ national security, cyber-espionage.  Google should certainly be commended for being so open about the Chinese cyber-attack.  Such frankness and cooperation with the U.S. government is important in battling cyber-espionage.  But the U.S. government appears to have largely ignored this opportunity to create a structure or a defense to deal with this issue.

But perhaps more importantly, should we rely on Google, a publicly traded company, to serve as our proxy on issues

Human Rights Attorney, Gao Zhisheng

Human Rights Attorney, Gao Zhisheng

of human rights?  Google was not created to promote human rights; Google’s dual aims are technology innovation and profits.  And there is nothing wrong with that; it’s what corporations do.  But by focusing so much on Google’s decision to leave China and cloaking it in this narrative of a principled stance against censorship, are we excusing our own behavior and inaction?  While the press has focused on Google’s departure from China, a real human rights defender, GAO Zhisheng, has “disappeared” in China.  Detained by the Chinese police last year, Mr. Gao went missing a few months ago with Chinese officials stating that he was “where he should be.”  Only yesterday was he found, alive.  But this story has received little attention from mainstream press and scant consideration from the Administration (the Google incident inspired a speech from the Secretary of State).  What kind of emerging superpower says that one of its citizens is where he belongs?  And what kind of society that is considered a bastion of human rights allows this power to get away with it?

China As a Global Superpower: Merely Aspirational or Actually Achievable?

By , October 29, 2009

The second in a series of three articles regarding China, On the Road to 2025.  Click here for Part 1.

On October 19, the Council on Foreign Relations and Project 2049 Institute cosponsored “China 2025,” a conference exploring where China may be in the next 15 to 20 years. Guest blogger Marcy Nicks Moody seeks to illuminate several of the arguments made and issues discussed, namely, domestic trends, foreign policy, and the economic outlook.

China set to rule the world?

China set to rule the world?

China Goes Global or Thinks Local?

by Marcy Nicks Moody

The second panel in last week’s “China 2025” conference covered a range of topics related to China’s foreign policy, falling under the loose rubric of “China Goes Global.” Michael A. Levi and Adam Segal, both of the Council on Foreign Relations, discussed two functional areas of Chinese foreign policy, namely climate and technology policy, while Ambassador David H. Shinn of George Washington University and Evan A. Feigenbaum of the Council on Foreign Relations addressed regional issues.

Though he was not the first to speak, Ambassador Shinn provided a useful framework for understanding not just China-Africa relations, but Chinese foreign policy-making more broadly. Three of China’s core interests in Africa, he argued, are its needs for (1) resources, (2) political support, and (3) productive commercial ties. With regard to the first of these, China has of course sought access to a range of Africa’s natural resources such as petroleum, timber, and minerals. In terms of China’s second need, though political support from African nations may not seem, on its face, as though it would be of extraordinary importance to China, Ambassador Shinn noted that four of the 53 African countries have diplomatic relations with Taiwan. For China, eliminating support of policies at odds with the “one China” policy is imperative, and Beijing spends a relatively large amount of time and effort in attempt to woo these four countries away from their current policies. Third, though Africa is not among China’s largest trading partners, China is Africa’s second largest trading partner, after the United States. And, China will likely become Africa’s largest trading partner next year, said Shinn.

Locating these three drivers of Chinese foreign policy – access to resources, political support, and an international environment conducive to economic growth – provides a useful understanding of what motivates China in its approach to the rest of the world.  Indeed, as an authoritarian government with sometimes questionable legitimacy, much of the Party-state’s justification for a continuation of its rule is now located in its abilities to increase the economic wealth of its citizens and to gain respect and exert influence internationally. Accessing the tools and conditions for economic growth as well as gaining outside political support therefore become crucial to the life of the Party-state. Though perhaps easy to ignore, the role of China’s domestic needs in its foreign policy decisions should not be underestimated.

As we seek to better understand Chinese foreign policy, its ‘go global’ policies, and their possible effects on U.S. interests, there are other myths which need to be dispelled. In their presentations on climate and technology policy, both Levi and Segal made particular note one of the idiosyncrasies of U.S. discussions and media presentations of China—that is, of the propensity for focusing on gross numbers and their Brobdingnagian dimensions. All numbers in China, both noted, are huge. But that does not necessarily make them meaningful. Segal noted, for example, that there has been an enormous increase in spending on research and development in China, but that innovation is more than simply spending. And expectations that China will become a technological superpower by 2025 are likely overblown. Similarly, China should not be viewed as eating U.S. lunch on clean-tech just because it is producing enormous quantities of solar panels, or has calls in its 11th Five Year Plan for reductions of 20 percent in energy intensity. With regard to the latter, China has created targets, not outcomes, and few, if any of these are on track to be achieved.

In sum, Adam Segal’s argument that China has embraced but will not profoundly change the global science and technology system is perhaps the most balanced view of Chinese ‘go global’ policies more generally. Many such policies and pronunciations are aspirational, but not, by 2025, achievable.

Marcy-NicksMarcy writes about China. In 2007-08, she was a Fulbright Scholar in China, where she was also a Research Fellow with the U.S.-Asia Law Institute. She received an M.A. in East Asian Studies from Columbia University and graduated from Brown University.

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