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Facebook, Netflix, Google, YouTube, Yahoo — these are just a few domains that are inaccessible in mainland China. Censored by legislative actions and technologies collectively known as “the Great Firewall,” many foreign search engines and social media platforms have had to get creative in order to engage the Chinese population; some license content to Chinese counterparts, or open a local subsidiary. Some simply call it quits.
For Google, giving up its foothold in the world’s largest internet market wasn’t an option. Despite longstanding censorship of its search engine and fierce competition from local tech companies, the Silicon Valley giant has managed to expand its presence in a country that many assume it’s entirely banned from.
Here’s how the company has made its mark in mainland China — and why it decided to stay.
Even in its early days, Google had its eye on China. In 2000, two years after being established, Sergey Brin and Larry Page’s brainchild began offering users a Mandarin version of Google.com, making it one of the first 14 languages available. That year, Google also published its corporate code of conduct and famously included the line “Don’t be evil,” which would define its company culture long after the clause was removed from the document.
Soon after entering China, the company encountered no shortage of obstacles. Google.com was temporarily blocked for the first time in September 2002, ahead of the 16th National Congress, then again in 2003, a month after the Great Firewall first became operational. In 2004, a week after launching Simplified Mandarin Google News, Google was making headlines itself for not displaying results from sites banned by the government.
“For Internet users in China, Google remains the only major search engine that does not censor any web pages,” a company press release read. “However, it’s clear that search results deemed to be sensitive for political or other reasons are inaccessible within China. There is nothing Google can do about this.”
Despite the setback, Google began putting down roots in the communist country, buying a minority stake in Baidu in 2004 and opening an R&D center in 2005. At the time, Google claimed only 27 percent of the Chinese search market, while local competitor Baidu dominated half of it.
But 27 percent wasn’t good enough. Dissatisfied with slow search speeds, results that stalled out the user’s browser, and a Google Images feature that only worked sporadically, the company decided it needed a local presence. Enter Google.cn, a search engine that filtered out pornographic and politically sensitive information, launched just for China in January 2006.
Americans weren’t happy with the concession. As the New York Times reported, “In February, company executives were called into Congressional hearings and compared to Nazi collaborators. The company’s stock fell, and protesters waved placards outside the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California.”
Google even acknowledged that filtering its search results “clearly compromised [its] mission.” But the firm reasoned on its blog that, “Failing to offer Google search at all to a fifth of the world’s population […] does so far more severely.”
It’s not like Google was the only American internet company to self-censor for China. (In fact, Yahoo was named the strictest censor by Reporters Without Borders in 2006.) But because Google had set higher standards for itself with its renowned corporate mantra of “Don’t be evil,” the world expected better.
What followed were signs of the times. YouTube was blocked in March 2009. In June, the Chinese government disabled some search functions after Google failed to remove pornographic and “vulgar” content off its site. And in September, Kaifu Lee, who had presided over Google China since its inception, unexpectedly stepped down.
Yet the final straw was a series of cyber-attacks from China targeting US private sector companies in 2009 (yeah, it was a rough year). In what was later dubbed Operation Aurora, hackers infiltrated the corporate networks of Google, Yahoo, Adobe, Dow Chemical, and more than two dozen other companies with malware and phishing scams to steal intellectual property.
In January 2010, Google became the first company to publicly disclose it had been targeted and that the Gmail accounts of certain Chinese human rights activists had been compromised. As a result of the attacks, Google decided to halt Google.cn in the mainland and move the uncensored Chinese-language search to Hong Kong.
“We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn,” the company wrote on its blog. “We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.”
While Google talked a big game about scaling down operations, the shutdown of its search engine wasn’t the end for its China footprint. In fact, Google has stayed relevant in China in a few ways:
Google Translate. In 2017, Google reintroduced the Translate mobile app to the mainland – and, to the delight of foreign travelers, made it accessible without a VPN. Though the web version, translate.google.cn, had been around for over eight years, the app gave the service a wider reach and offered more features like Conversation Mode, Tap to Translate, and Word Lens. According to Tech Crunch, this was the first time Google had revived a service specifically for users in China.
Artificial Intelligence. That same year, Google also opened the Google AI China Center in Beijing for the purpose of conducting research, recruiting local talent, and developing globally-available tools like TensorFlow. As Li Feifei, the executive who opened the lab, stated, “The science of AI has no borders, neither do its benefits.”
And for the most part, the AI work seems well-intentioned, from supporting educational initiatives and conferences to developing a computer program to crack the game of Go (and put human players in their place). However, as tensions grow over China’s technical and military might, critics have accused the company of hypocrisy, arming a rival country with potential tools for cyber warfare while refusing to develop AI capabilities for the Pentagon.
Android OS and Apps. Despite Google’s recent move to pull its Android license from Huawei after the company was blacklisted in the US, the operating system still powers most Chinese smartphone brands, including Oppo, Xiaomi, and Vivo.
Though Google Play and other services like YouTube, Gmail, and Google Maps are still absent, Google has found other ways to fill that memory space: in 2018, the tech titan released the Chinese version of Files Go, brought augmented reality and virtual reality to the Xiaomi App Store via ARCore, and even developed a Pictionary mini program for WeChat.
Investments. Besides building its own presence in China, the multibillion-dollar company has also given money to a number of local businesses, starting with the smartwatch startup Mobvoi in 2015. Since then, Google has made investments in biotech firm XtalPi, game-streaming platform Chushou, and e-commerce powerhouse JD.com.
While these projects were rolling out, Google was secretly working to get its search engine running again in China. Started in 2017, the Dragonfly project attempted to create a new, censored version of its search service specifically for the Chinese market, one that would filter out websites and search results about human rights, peaceful protest, religion, and other topics banned by the state.
Ever dreamt about working for Google?
— Stefan Simanowitz (@StefSimanowitz) November 27, 2018
Unsurprisingly, this covert operation faced considerable backlash — especially from within Google’s company walls. After The Intercept leaked project details in August 2018, 1,400 Google employees signed a letter calling for the company to cancel Dragonfly, citing concerns over state surveillance and human rights abuses.
“Our company’s decision comes as the Chinese government is openly expanding its surveillance powers and tools of population control,” the letter read. “Providing the Chinese government with ready access to user data, as required by Chinese law, would make Google complicit in oppression and human rights abuses.”
The project reportedly ended late last year, but floating rumors and continued protests by employees and human rights organizations forced the company to publicly confirm its termination in July 2019.
The likelihood of Google launching a localized search engine in the near future, after facing widespread backlash for Dragonfly, is unlikely. At the same time, it’d be naïve to think the internet giant has given up for good; as Amnesty International points out, Google has “refused to rule out working with China on such projects,” leaving the door open to “future abuses.”
Though Google’s keeping its search engine strategy hush-hush, here’s what we can expect based on its current projects: more classes, conferences, research into AI, investment in local companies, and cloud services. And based on the number of ads on its Weibo page, Google Translate won’t be going away anytime soon.
While other factors, such as the future of Google’s Android OS and smartphone production, are up in the air due to the trade war, one thing’s for certain: Google’s not out of the China game.
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