Google executives seem ready to bow to China's censorship rules. Hundreds of employees are fighting it.
The wisdom of President Donald Trump’s trade fight with China is much debated.
To people like me, it will cost American consumers and businesses, validate Beijing’s sense of victimhood over the “Century of Humiliation” at the hands of the West, and fail to stop China’s worst trading practices.
But what about the ethics and morality of doing business with China?
This was at the heart of an internal rebellion at Google earlier this month, when hundreds of employees bridled at the possibility that the company was preparing to re-enter the Chinese market with a search engine censored to please the authorities of the People’s Republic.
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According to The New York Times, “The project, known internally as Dragonfly, was developed largely in secret, prompting outrage among employees who worried they had been unwittingly working on technology that would help China withhold information from its citizens.”
According to Human Rights Watch, an international research and advocacy group, “China’s extensive censorship regime restricts a wide range of peaceful expression that officials deem politically sensitive, including criticism of government policy and information that does not conform to official narratives.”
The organization warned Big Tech, specifically Google, against complicity in the repression.
The Intercept first reported that Dragonfly gained speed after a meeting this past December between a top Chinese government official and Google CEO Sundar Pichai. “The app has already been demonstrated to the Chinese government; the finalized version could be launched in the next six to nine months, pending approval from Chinese officials.”
A letter signed by 1,400 Google employees said, “We urgently need more transparency, a seat at the table, and a commitment to clear and open processes: Google employees need to know what we’re building.” It also called for employees to be included in a review of the ethics of Google products.
In an internal meeting that followed, executives claimed they weren’t close to returning to China. But based on the information above, this should be taken with shakers full of salt.
Google left China in 2010 over government censorship and Chinese hacking of its corporate infrastructure.
Back then, “don’t be evil” was part of the company’s code of conduct. It has since been changed to “do the right thing.” But the latter can be very elastic. Doing the right thing for shareholders can mean getting into the nation with the world’s most internet users, whatever the price in trivialities such as playing along with an authoritarian regime.
Most major American corporations — including Boeing, Microsoft and Starbucks — have substantial business in China. Facebook was banned but is trying to return.
In 2015, the most recent year for which data are available, U.S. subsidiaries posted nearly $222 billion in sales to Chinese customers. The United States runs a services trade surplus with China.
And to be fair, it’s not all greed or growth-at-any cost.
In the Cold War, the gradual entrance of Western products into the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites played a significant role in undermining faith in communism. Citizens on the other side of the Iron Curtain realized the lies they had been told about the West as they sampled its high-quality delights, beginning with Pepsi in 1972.
Many assumed the same would happen in China.
But between the savage repression of the pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square and the implicit bargain the Communist Party stuck with the nation — you can get rich with capitalism, but the one-party state is sacrosanct — it never happened. The goal of a liberal China is even less likely with Xi Jinping able to serve as president for life.
The Trump administration says that allowing China into the World Trade Organization in 2001 was a mistake. Some commentators agree. I’m not sure we had much choice. China was too big to ignore or alienate. But there’s no doubt that the idealists were wrong, while the “China shock” as American companies rushed in cost about 2 million U.S. jobs.
That’s business, as they say. But Adam Smith, supposed patron saint of laissez-faire, said the interest of the businessman “is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public.”
Google employees still have greater suasion than is the case elsewhere. Earlier this year, under an employee backlash, the company said it wouldn’t renew a contract with the Pentagon to improve drone strikes using artificial intelligence.
One hopes they can prevail in the fight against a censored Google in China.
The challenges are bad enough in America, where political leaders deny objective facts and conspiracy theories abound.
Google can do better. Don’t be evil.