Google and Face

Author: Joy Huang

In the last two weeks, it seems impossible to finish reading a newspaper without seeing an article or mentioning of Google in China. Google had taken a defiant stance against the Chinese government Internet censorship in a widely publicized event. It has since initiated a partial retreat out of Mainland China. And now with a damaged relationship with the government and diminished presence, more and more of Google's partners in China are dropping its services as the fallout unfolds.

To me, this has been an intriguing play out of ideology and politics. To the idealistic or rebellious, Google’s act is heroic and admirable. One can even argue that it may in fact have a positive impact in the future censorship policy in China, and that only time will tell. But through all this, I couldn't but ask: has Google planned to sacrifice their business all along to honor their ideological stance, or is it caught off-guard by the aftermath of its decision? I wonder if any of the executives in its California HQ is taking a pause and saying, "Mmm, didn’t expect this…"?

The China Youth Daily conducted a survey to its readers, and 93% of the respondents said "making a mistake in public has by far been the most humiliating experience in their lives". Losing face in front of others is the most uncomfortable place for a Chinese to be, and it is one they will do anything to avoid. Unlike in the U.S. where confrontation can sometimes get you the results quickly, the aggressive in-your-face style usually leads to nowhere in China. The long history of Daoism and Confucius that heavily influence the Chinese culture makes it clear that harmony among people is the most important of all. The society functions as webs of interconnected groups of people who give and receive loyalty to each other. Things are done behind closed doors and with private conversations.

Given this, and assuming Google's singular objective was to improve censorship policies in China, directly confronting the Chinese government in such a public fashion seems somewhat destined to be counter-productive. For people who are intimately familiar with the Chinese culture the fallout was not a surprise. Was Google surprised, I wonder? As a business, Google executives have the right to do anything they deem appropriate for their business and its corporate responsibilities. Each company will define their own path to reach its objective - some seek short and quick answers, and others take the long and winding road. One question to ask though: what would happen if Google took a more patient and tactful approach and continue to work on incremental changes within their power and control? Will we see a more relaxed Internet environment in China over time, and will the Chinese people be better off from increased competition in this space? The answer could very well be a "Yes", especially if we take a look at the progress in social justices already made in China as a result of the viral effect of social media.

So remember, next time you are in China – save face for others and face will be given in return.

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