Why Google Shouldn’t Bully China

davidlivermore | January 24th, 2010 2 Comments

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I applaud Google for saying “Enough” to censorship. I share their profound belief in making information and ideas accessible to people anywhere, everywhere; and especially to giving people voice whatever their lot in society. But I question the wisdom of their recent negotiations with China, which began with a “public announcement”.

Google’s commitment to transparency is noble and inspiring. CEO Eric Schmidt says, “We don’t want to keep secrets. So we decided to first make a public announcement and now we are having discussions with the Chinese government.” The problem is, this flies in the face of a core Chinese value—harmony and saving face.

Time and time again, it’s been ineffective to bully China by telling the world how wicked and evil they are. There are evil, conniving leaders in China. And there are good, virtuous leaders in China. The same goes for governmental leaders in the U.S., Haiti, and probably every country in the world. Many of China’s young, emerging leaders are among the strongest advocates for free speech but they’re also the first to stand up and defend their government when they hear Western businesses and leaders disparaging them.

It’s kind of like how it feels when you criticize someone in your family as compared to when someone else criticizes one of your family members. I’ll be the first to talk about some of my dad’s quirks but if you do so, look out. That’s my dad you’re talking about! Multiply this many times over in a collectivist society like China where saving face, protecting harmony, and being committed to your people is of utmost value.

I’ve done a lot work in China over the last few years so I appreciate the complexities of working effectively and respectfully in what’s now the second largest economy in the world. The complexities are even more challenging for a burgeoning, value-added company like Google. And admittedly, I only have what the media has reported to know what’s really gone on in Google’s attempted negotiations.

My larger interest is the tension we often experience when personal and organizational values conflict with another culture’s values (in this case, transparency and access vs. harmony). But perhaps we can view it like this: For Google to honor the Chinese value for harmony and saving face is not only important because it respects Chinese culture, but it’s also important because an approach that promotes harmony and saves face will also be the most effective way for Google to promote their own values of transparency and access.

We need to figure this out with any cross-cultural interaction but especially in learning how to work with the rising empire in the East. Just google “China” and see how many hits you get.

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