Game Over: Google shuts down its censored Chinese search engine, Google.cn

Google has finally closed down its censored Google.cn search engine.  As we reported, the company announced in a January 12 blog post that following a series of intrusions into its systems by Chinese hackers, it would no longer cooperate with the Chinese government’s mandate that Google censor its Chinese site to remove results the government didn’t approve of, from the words “freedom” and “democracy” to the Tiananmen Square protests, Dalai Lama, and more.  Over the last two months, the company has been in negotiations with the Chinese government, which is, unsurprisingly, not willing to budge.

Google just put up another blog post announcing that it has shut down Google.cn and is redirecting users to a simplified Chinese (the language used on the mainland) version of Google.com.hk (the Hong Kong site, normally uses the traditional Chinese script).  As we mentioned in January, there is much speculation as to the reasoning behind Google’s decision.  After all, while the company does claim “don’t be evil” as a motto, it’s been censoring Chinese search results for nearly four years now, so why the sudden change of heart?

Read on to find out.

Well, for one, Google’s losing pretty badly in the Chinese market to its local clone, Baidu, with a market share split of 33% to 63%.  Business in China has never been particularly profitable for Google, so if it made a business decision to exit the market, this would be a convenient way to do so while picking up some PR points outside China.  Second, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who grew up in the Soviet Union, has apparently always been uneasy with his company’s China policy, so perhaps Chinese hackers targeting human rights activists’ Google accounts pushed him over the edge.  China is certain to block the Google.com.hk site within the next few days, if not hours, so Google has put up a page reporting on the accessibility of Google services in China.

Exiting China will have almost no effect on Google’s bottom line because as mentioned, it wasn’t making much money there in the first place.  The long-term ramifications are much more important, however.  Google will most likely lose out on one of the world’s largest markets, which could put it at a competitive disadvantage in the future.  Baidu will probably pick up Google’s remaining market share (and perhaps Microsoft, whose Bing search engine has yet to gain traction in China).

More broadly, Google’s exit is a sign that the Chinese government is not continuing to open up and liberalize with economic development, as many within China and around the world had hoped.  It might actually be going in the other direction, tightening its iron grip on the country and using its new economic muscle to prop up local Chinese firms.  As Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet project at UC Berkeley, said, “It is certainly a historic moment. The Internet was seen as a catalyst for China being more integrated into the world. The fact that Google cannot exist in China, clearly indicates that China’s path as a rising power is going in a direction different from what the world expected and what many Chinese were hoping for.”

An image search for Tiananmen Square on Google.com vs. Google.cn. Google.cn shows only happy tourists-- not a single photo of the protests.

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