Yesterday afternoon, Google announced on their blog that they are re-thinking their entire approach and operations in China. Why? Because, Google says, the attack on their infrastructure, which originated in China, was not just a group of hackers trying to wreak havoc. It was, they assert, not just on Google, but on several other large Internet businesses that also operate in China. Most tellingly, the target of the attacks appeared to be email services, specifically the accounts of human rights activists.
That last part is what has turned this from a simple private sector security matter into a full blow diplomatic affair. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton penned a very short response on her blog asking the Chinese government for an explanation. In short, this is not ordinary international affair.
Google’s conclusion is the most startling of all: they may pull operations out of China altogether. The response is not some knee-jerk reaction to the attacks either, but comes in a measured, steady, and almost regretful tone in the Google blog entry. The Wall Street Journal reports that this would not only be a rare repudiation by a western company, but it would be coming from one that operates as the largest Internet player in the world’s largest Internet market. It’s not likely that the Chinese government would take such a threat lightly.
The interesting note here, however, is that while Google definitely benefits from operating in China, the cyber giant doesn’t necessarily need that market to continue in prosperity, whereas the Chinese Internet would take a huge blow were Google to withdraw from it.
In fact James Fallows at The Atlantic sums it up well with his remarks, coming from the perspective of someone who knows the Chinese tech market intimately. The most significant aspect of all of this is not necessarily Google’s response, but will be based on the Chinese response to Google. That response will shape Chinese relations with the rest of the world, especially the west, significantly and for some time.
We live in interesting times, indeed, and this is definitely something that will be filling the news for the coming weeks as the story unfolds.