The World from Berlin: Google's Move to Hong Kong 'A Face-Saving Capitulation'

Google has stopped playing by the Chinese rules and moved its search engine to Hong Kong. The move allows the company to keep one foot in China while fulfilling its promise to end self-censorship. But German commentators are still skeptical of the company's motives -- and future.

A bouquet of flowers lies on the Google logo outside the company's Chinese headquarters in Beijing a day after the company effectively shut down its mainland site, Google.cn. Zoom
AFP

A bouquet of flowers lies on the Google logo outside the company's Chinese headquarters in Beijing a day after the company effectively shut down its mainland site, Google.cn.

If Google is looking for sympathy in its ongoing row with China, Germany, it would seem, is not the place to turn.

After months of headbutting with China over accusations of government hackers and censorship, the Internet search giant finally made its move. Since Tuesday, its mainland Chinese-language portal, Google.cn, has been shut down, with searches now being rerouted through its unfiltered Hong Kong site.

Google's move was a far cry from abandoning the Chinese market altogether, but still allowed the company to fulfill its promise of ending self-censorship in China. But Chinese authorities have reacted angrily. The government on Tuesday issued a statement calling the move "totally wrong." And a commentary in the overseas edition of the leading Chinese Communist Party newspaper ratcheted up the rancor even more on Wednesday. It accused Google of "cooperation and collusion with the US intelligence and security agencies" and being part of the "United States' big efforts in recent years to engage in Internet war," according to Reuters.

The front-page commentary went on to say that: "For Chinese people, Google is not god, and even if it puts on a full-on show about politics and values, it is still not god."

It is a sentiment with which many in Germany would agree. Indeed, in Wednesday's newspapers, German commentators weren't very interested in Google's spin on the move. Instead, they attributed it to business logic rather than principle, saw it as merely a "face-saving capitulation," warned people away from seeing the fight as a David-vs-Goliath-like match-up and even imagined it as the welcome dawning of the post-Google world.

Left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"At first glance, it looks like an impressive move: Google defies censorship and the online bullying of the Chinese government by redirecting its services to Hong Kong. But, at second glance, you start to get the feeling that Google's retreat is actually much more of a business move. Even though Google has had its own service (Google.cn) in China since 2006, it still only has a 35 percent market share, which puts it far behind the domestic service provider Baidu."

"Moreover, it isn't like Google is completely abandoning China. The fact that its advertising division and software developers will stay put strengthens the suspicion that the change has more to do with a search for a new business model."

"For some in China, the disappearance of Google.cn may be a loss. Among critical Web users, it had become common knowledge that Gmail accounts were much less prone to state snooping than accounts from state providers. The cessation of such services is regrettable, but for most it is hardly a tragedy. China's tech-savvy online community has a lot of experience with censors and has known how to get around Internet barriers -- such as those encountered with Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Wikipedia -- for a long time."

"Of course, this is cumbersome, but it is still technically feasible. Google's power struggle with China is thus little more than a mock battle."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"Google is leaving China, but it's also staying. The Internet search company is keeping the promise it made in January to no longer censor search results on its Chinese Web site -- now it is up to the censors in Beijing. At the same time, though, by moving its Web site to Hong Kong, Google is still keeping one foot in the quickly growing Chinese online market."

"In practical terms, the company didn't have any other choice. On the one hand, it could have terminated its contract with China and abandoned the country altogether. That may have made them heroes, but they would have lost the Chinese market completely. On the other hand, the company could have just backed down on its threat. But, in that case, it would have risked losing the respect it enjoys in the rest of the world. The move to Hong Kong was a sort of face-saving capitulation. It also allows the company to continue offering its services to the Chinese while, at the same time, signaling to the Chinese government that it will no longer accept hacker attacks and censorship."

The conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"If it were just about the noble good of the free expression of opinions, it would really be an easy call: You would have to side with Google because it doesn't want to bow to the control of the Chinese state. Likewise, you would also have to side with Google because it's been clear for a long time that no state can be built on censoring and channeling the expression of opinions. You can't wall data in."

"But the matter also has another side to it. Google likes to present itself as the flexible, anti-authoritarian vanguard that fears none and tirelessly battles for the democratic rights of all. Google painstakingly nurtures its David image -- and China makes a good Goliath. But, unfortunately, this isn't about David and Goliath. When Google and China face off, it is much more about Goliath and Goliath. The company ... has grown to become a voracious creature that openly seeks to establish a monopoly on knowledge, news and information."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"It's a bitter irony that, of all possible entities, it is the Chinese dictatorship that is reminding Google that it also needs to abide by the law. ... Google is now atoning for the sins it made when it entered the Chinese market -- that is, agreeing to allow politically unpopular online content to be filtered out."

"But the fit that the Chinese government has thrown in public is at least as hypocritical ... and it is grotesque to accuse Google of 'politicizing' the battle of access to online content. ... With luck, Google's retreat will lead to some more critical thinking -- both within and outside China -- about a leadership that retreats into its own world, in this case a hollow nationalism."

"Chances are that Beijing won't allow the parts of the company that are going to remain in China to go on working there disturbance-free. Thus, in the near future, unless some political miracle happens, China might also be able to show the rest of the world what life without Google looks like. For Google, the lessons that other (even democratic) countries learn from this will be much more problematic for Google than the current China situation. Google's world is headed for chaos."

-- Josh Ward

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