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The World from Berlin: What Are Google's Real Motives in China?

Google this week has announced that it will no longer censor results returned by its Chinese search engine. The company even said it is willing to turn its back on the country if it has to. Many are applauding the move, but some German commentators wonder if there is an ulterior motive.

Supporters of Google's announcement that it would cease censoring its Chinese search engine placed flowers at the company's China headquarters in Beijing on Wednesday. Zoom
AP

Supporters of Google's announcement that it would cease censoring its Chinese search engine placed flowers at the company's China headquarters in Beijing on Wednesday.

It's not often that passers-by lay flowers in front of the headquarters of a multi-billion dollar company. But on Wednesday, a number of bouquets turned up in front of the Google office in Beijing, along with notes reading "Thank You Google" and "Goodbye."

The support comes in response to Google's announcement earlier this week that it would cease censoring search results for the Chinese version of its search engine, Google.cn -- even if it means getting thrown out of the country. The company's decision comes in response to efforts originating in China to hack into the Google mail accounts of human rights activists. Other attacks appeared aimed at breaking into the computers of American companies to steal internal company documents, Google said.

"We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China," Google's head legal officer David Drummond said.

'Most Stupid Decision in Their History'

Drummond insists that the company's revenues in China are "immaterial." Nevertheless, the company has taken some heat for its willingness to abandon the country, presumed by many to be the next great market for online ventures.

"This is the most stupid decision in their history," Tang Jun, the former head of Microsoft's China operations, told the Shanghai-based news portal Eastday.com. "Giving up China means giving up half the world."

For the most part, however, the reactions have been positive, allowing Google to regain some of the credibility the company lost when it launched its Chinese search engine in 2006, after agreeing to play by the government's censorship rules. "I'm here to pay my respects to Google because they did not lose their dignity and they stayed true to their company's beliefs," You Liwei told the Associated Press in front of Google headquarters in Beijing.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is demanding more information from the Chinese government regarding the cyber-offensive. The subject is also sure to come up during a visit by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle to China on Friday and Saturday -- a trip already weighed down by a mini-controversy over whether Westerwelle will be allowed to give a press conference or not.

German commentators on Thursday take a closer look at Google's decision to stop censoring search results in China.

Business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"Behind Google's threat to cease business activities in China, one motive stands out: The company, whose business is that of collecting and storing highly sensitive data, must protect itself from being spied upon by a country which seeks to play a major role in shaping the next generation of Internet standards. Beijing is following a strategy meant to prove that an authoritarian regime can survive in the Internet age. But the Chinese are lacking expertise, which is why they are seeking access to protected source codes."

"At second glance, Google's threat is not nearly as courageous as it would seem at first. With just a 20 percent share of the search engine market and an almost invisible share of the advertising market, the company is hardly taking an economic risk by leaving China. But it is a potent signal -- also for human rights."

"China must show itself impassive in the face of threats and criticism. The country's leadership feels secure despite demands for more democracy and transparency. But the government should not deceive itself: The Internet plays an important role in China. The people there will not remain submissive forever. Beijing should be careful not to go too far."

The center-right daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"There are likely some functionaries in China who were surprised by Google's announcement -- the country has become used to the idea that they could simply ignore criticism from abroad. But the Chinese government looks to have made the same mistake made by so many other dictatorships: Democracies can, for a time, be easy partners as they don't tend to overreact. But one shouldn't push them too far. When their core values are threatened ... they will defend themselves."

"Now, of course, is the time to remain firm. The US government has bluntly demanded an explanation for the attack from Beijing. The answer will, when it comes, no doubt take the familiar tone of 'insulted innocence.' More interesting, however, will be the answer to the question as to how firmly Google follows up on its threat. Will the company really resist China's attempts at censorship from now on? Or was Google more interested in improving its tarnished global image?"

The center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"One could almost be forgiven for thinking that Google is a country. The company's move to no longer accept state censorship of its search engine in China and its threat to close down its operation in the country reminds one of a government which breaks off diplomatic relations."

"With its thrust into the realm of foreign policy, Google has done something that conservative politicians and NGOs have long demanded. Because the power and influence of national governments is no longer as great in the globalized world, the economy is called on to change geopolitical no-go areas when politics cannot."

"The US government is actively supporting Google in its confrontation with China. But how will the political power of the company develop? Is it set to become an indicator of freedom and prosperity like Coca Cola and McDonald's? Or a sinister global player like the United Fruit Company once was -- a company which once benefited from coups performed in South America by the CIA?"

-- Charles Hawley

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