Google-China Conflict Must Be Viewed in Context of Bigger Story

As the old saw goes, we sometimes can’t see the forest for the trees. What’s happening is hidden in plain sight, but we don’t see it, either because we’re focusing too closely on an incidental element or because we don’t want to confront an unpalatable reality.

I feel that way as I watch the Google-China conflict play out. In truth, the dispute between Google and China is a symptom of a larger problem, one that has far-reaching implications for Western economies and entire industries, including the technology sector.

No, censorship is not the core issue. Censorship is a MacGuffin, a plot device that keeps the story moving in the media but doesn’t get to the heart of what’s really happening. As much as we like to think our companies value human rights above all else, it’s simply not true. Companies are businesses, and they behave like businesses. They’re guided by the profit motive, and they seek to grow revenue and earnings. It’s what they do.

Occasionally, ethical and moral considerations play a role in corporate strategies. There are companies that practice enlightened self-interest, and Google is one of them.

Google knows, for instance, that its search engine is more popular and valuable if it is seen to be objective, delivering the best possible results, not beholden to the solicitations of commercial interests or the fiats of oppressive governments. Paradoxically, by refusing to capitulate to those who would have Google skew its search results, Google actually makes its search engine more valuable to everybody, including Google. That’s enlightened self-interest.

So, what’s really happening? What’s the big picture? Google is one of dozens of Western multinational companies finding that China, though the fastest-growing major economy in the world, will not provide them with the riches they had anticipated. That’s because of China’s nationalist mercantilism, as reflected in its “indigenous innovation” industrial policies.

A story in today’s Wall Street Journal is instructive. Titled “Business Sours on China,” the article explores the growing disillusionment of foreign businesses in China. These businesses are discovering that Chinese authorities are increasingly favoring homegrown state-owned companies across a range of industries, including almost all involving technology-related growth sectors.

What follows is a salient excerpt from the WSJ story:

“The Google issue has had a crystallizing effect,” says Lester Ross, managing partner in Beijing for U.S. law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr. “It raised the consciousness of government and of the boardrooms and other stakeholders” about the difficulties of doing business in China, he says.

Foreign investors have long complained about China’s haphazard legal system and regulation.

These were mere annoyances when China was an emerging market. Today, the huge Chinese market is increasingly fundamental to the health of large Western multinationals. Lose here, say Western executives, and multinationals are weakened globally.

So, as you can see, the stakes are huge. Companies that have built robust Chinese growth into their business models and revenue projections are increasingly anxious — and for good reason.

It doesn’t help that China’s systematic efforts to create state-backed, homegrown, market-leading behemoths doesn’t stop at “indigenous innovation.”

Remember that these issues are being raised by foreign transnationals in the immediate aftermath of what McAfee calls Operation Aurora, an outbreak of corporate espionage that allegedly saw China-based hackers attempt to purloin the source code, product formulas, and other intellectual property in “software configuration management systems” of at least 20 (and perhaps as many as 100) US-based companies. (Yes, Google was one of them, and that’s how and when his latest conflagration with China began.)

We don’t know what intellectual property was stolen from which companies. That information is not being volunteered. What’s not at issue is that somebody was trying to get what McAfee’s calls the corporate “crown jewels.”

I’m not saying censorship and human-rights abuses are not important issues. I wish they were more important than they are. But the fact is, this story is even bigger, with ramifications that could affect the health of Western economies as well as the profitability of the corporations they host.

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