China, a country of over one billion people with arguably the world’s fastest growing economy, presents an attractive investment opportunity for many Western companies. However, doing business under China’s totalitarian regime comes at a price. For Google, the world’s largest search firm, this meant bowing to the government’s strict censorship rules for search results, which compel Google to remove, for instance, references to the Tiananmen Square massacre. For a company whose corporate motto is “Do no evil,” this acquiescence to the regime’s restrictions on basic liberties has long confounded many in the West.
However, following a recent cyber attack on the company that targeted the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists, Google announced an about face on its earlier policy. According to a note published on the company’s public blog:
We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.
While Google could potentially lose the millions of dollars it has spent on its China operation, this is a risk it could have foreseen long before deciding to do business in a country with an appalling record on civil liberties and property rights. As The Undercurrent’s Gena Gorlin prognosticated in 2006:
If Google applied the same principled approach to its dealings in China that it has applied (up to now) to its search sorting, it would see that no long-term corporate strategy is possible in China—a country where government thugs can capriciously intrude into a corporation’s affairs at any moment, for any reason… Google’s presence in China may just as easily result in physical harm to both its own employees and to Chinese citizens whose private information the government can access with Google’s help.
The company’s public announcement has shined a spotlight on censorship in China, sending tremors through the Communist Party leadership, but it has equally shined a light on the practice of doing business with an inherently corrupt regime. While Google deserves praise for its long overdue but principled stand against Chinese suppression of freedom of speech, many other Western companies continue to accede to China’s oppressive demands. As Google discovered, their acquiescence only furthers the evil ends of a totalitarian regime. At what point will other companies recognize the real cost—the sacrifice of human lives, liberties, and property—that inevitably follows from doing business with evil?