Google’s Problem With Chinese Culture

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In late February, Forbes interviewed Google’s Sundar Pichai who said that Google was interested in re-entering the Chinese market:

Pichai said Google planned to make a renewed push in areas like payments, commerce and enterprise apps this year, and he suggested that Google would welcome the opportunity enter the Chinese market again…Pichai said…“I don’t think of China as a black hole. I see it as a huge opportunity in which we are playing as an enabling platform today and hopefully we have a chance to offer other services in the future.”

It’s no surprise that Google wants to re-enter the largest market on earth, with its hundreds of millions of increasingly-online users. But despite Google’s interest, their attempt at re-entry will be frustrated as their core mission statement is at odds with Chinese values. To understand why this is the case, we must first examine Google’s mission, the Western culture which enables it, and how that mission is at odds with Chinese culture.

Google’s Mission and Incentives

Google’s explicit mission statement is:

to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful

The underlying assumption of this mission statement is that access to information is valuable and that access to all information is even more valuable. Google and its employees, then, exist to gain access to as much information as possible. Around this mission statement has arisen a culture that views information as inherently valuable and has gone to phenomenal lengths to capitalize on this mission. Google is incentivized, more than any other company, to collect and make accessible information–and because of those incentives, Google has made the modern internet possible.

Those incentives, however, have a downside. In its quest to organize all the world’s information, Google has developed a culture largely ignorant that not all information should be organized or made accessible. Google has frequently been the subject of controversy and even investigation, whether for its attempts to gain too much information digitizing libraries, displaying too much user information in Buzz, collecting personal information with its StreetView cars, violating European notions of personal privacy in StreetView, or fighting Europe’s laws about a right to be forgotten.

In each case, these controversies were consistent with Google’s stated mission statement: collecting all the world’s information and make it universally accessible. It should be no surprise that Google’s privacy policy was ignored or violated in the above controversies–because Google’s privacy policy contradicts the stated purpose of the organization.

Google’s Western Values

A mission like Google’s, however, would only develop in a society, like the West, that views free access of information as beneficial for society and a human right. The West believes that people have a right to access all information, even if it is inaccurate, graphic, vulgar, misleading, demeaning to women, hateful to minorities, enables people to harm themselves, or teaches them how to make weapons. Apart from a few “national security” secrets, information is freely accessible–and there are organizations like WikiLeaks dedicated to making even the national security secrets freely accessible.

Furthermore, a mission like Google’s would only develop in a society, like the West, that places responsibility only on those who produced that information and on those who access that information. By law and principle, the West does not treat Google responsible for information it finds, or what people do with that information. Google may provide links to newspapers who lie about celebrities, but the newspaper is responsible for slander, not Google. Google provides users with information about building bombs, but the user is responsible for setting off the bomb, not Google. A Google link (or even ad!) might take you to a site that scams you, but you are responsible for being scammed, not Google.

Google’s mission and culture are incentivized to make all information available, not ask what information should be made available. As such, it would have extreme trouble existing in a culture which does not value free access to information as a human right or which holds a search engine responsible for the information it provides. But China is such a culture.

China: Access to Information is Not a Right

In China, different societal values are at work. Each person is responsible for the good of the collective, so much so that information is routinely withheld for the sake of the collective good. This is done officially, through censorship, but what many in the West do not realize is that this is often done by choice, without coercion, by people in China who value the good of the community above all.

My students in China regularly comment that information that leads to “social instability” should not be accessible online. Doctors regularly lie to their patients about life-threatening diseases so patients don’t worry; when they tell family members, those family members usually agree to keep up the lie “for the good” of the dying patient. When my grandfather-in-law passed away, the family was concerned that if his elderly brother learned, he would die, so the entire family lied about it for months. Whenever the brother asked about my grandfather-in-law, they made up stories about his travels abroad, then communicated those stories to the rest of the family so they could keep up the ruse.

These are not isolated incidents. The parents of Olympic gold medalist Wu Minxia didn’t tell her that two of her grandparents had died and that her Mom had breast cancer until after she won the gold medal, even though the grandparents had died years earlier. Students prepare for years to take the College Entrance Exam (Gaokao)–an exam so stressful that it is the leading cause of suicides among students aged 15-34. When a traffic accident left one student’s mother dead and his father in the ICU shortly prior to the test, the police, school, and the student’s family together lied so the student would take the exam without added sadness or anxiety.

The above situations likely cause Westerners reading this post to be aghast–and by Western values, you should. But don’t forget that these actions were all freely chosen by well-meaning Chinese people who made their decisions according to a radically different set of values. In China, information is not inherently good, more information is not better, and free access to that information is not regarded as a human right.

China: Enabling Access Makes One Responsible

Google’s challenges go deeper, for not only does Chinese society not regard free access to information as something inherently good, they also have different cultural and legal ideas about responsibility. In the West, search engines are not responsible for the production or use of information they make available, but the Chinese mentality is different.

For example, consider the following quotation from Robin Li, the CEO of the dominant Chinese search engine Baidu:

If someone searched for something on Baidu but didn’t search well and got scammed [on a site that popped up in the results], that information wasn’t Baidu’s. I just indexed it, and at first my thinking was: that’s not my problem. But later we came to realize that if other people see it as your your problem, then it’s your problem, and you need to find a way to solve it. So we made a safety guarantee plan, sort of like insurance, so that if you’re scammed by some site you found in Baidu’s search, although Baidu didn’t scam you we will still compensate you. This concept slowly became: the facts [of a search] are not important, what’s important is what people think, and if people think something you’ve got to find a way to resolve it.

Interestingly, Robin Li, who was educated in the US, initially viewed search engines with a Western perspective, but notice how he adapted to a Chinese view of social responsibility. If Baidu made a scam accessible, Chinese people viewed Baidu as responsible for it, so Baidu adjusted. It’s hard to imagine Google doing the same thing.1 Chinese laws that hold technology companies responsible for what their users say are not imposing values foreign to Chinese culture; rather, they reflect in law the values and ideas Chinese people already have towards those who make unhelpful information accessible.2

Conclusion

In the West, Google’s ability to re-enter China is viewed primarily through the political lens of censorship. While Google’s political challenges are substantial–and likely made insurmountable by how Google handled their exodus3–these are not the primary reasons why Google will struggle if it ever re-enters the Chinese market.

Google’s defining mission is closely connected to the Western culture in which it started and it will struggle wherever opposite or contradictory values exist. In China, where free access to information is not a right and where search engines are responsible for the information they make accessible, Google is culturally incapable of accomplishing its mission. Even if Google were to return to China, they would face massive difficulty culturally adapting since Google’s mission is contradictory to fundamental Chinese values.

Related posts on China by @MarkDMill


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Footnotes

1. Just consider how Eric Schmidt responded to criticism of Google making personal information available:

If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

Or consider how Eric Schmidt and Sergey Brin joked when they joked about still making a link accessible even though it was required to be taken down by DMCA law:

“We removed [the site]…And we were able to come to a really interesting solution which was to actually link to the removal request. If there are search results where something has been removed, now we link to the [DMCA complaint] that generated the removal of those results…And…guess what’s in the complaint? Possibly the URLs that we removed. ↩️

2. Note that I am not making any moral or philosophical claim about what information is “unhelpful” or who gets to determine that. That discussion is a valid one in which different cultures make radically different judgments, but it is not the point of this piece. Rather, my goal is to demonstrate that we need to understand Google’s China problems not from a Western perspective where freedom of information is a right but from a Chinese perspective where the good of the collective is more important than individual freedoms. ↩️

3. As The Economist quotes a “former Google insider,” “the opportunity to capitulate was lost forever when Google gave the middle finger and left.” Sergey Brin’s comments in the New York Times likely sealed their exclusion. ↩️

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