But why would hack attempts, which Google says were both unsuccessful and not aimed solely at Google, prompt the company to threaten a Chinese pull-out? And why become suddenly concerned about Chinese government censorship, which has existed since before Google arrived in China?
The reason all this sounds surprising and mysterious is that Google is no doubt using omissions and euphemisms to both protect its employees and partners in China from retribution by the government, and also to leave the door open a bit so it might keep doing business in China.
Since Google can't and won't say the plain truth, I will: To do business as an Internet company in China is to risk pressure to collaborate with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the violation of human rights.
I'm not exaggerating, but speaking literally. Article 19 of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes the freedom to "receive and impart information and ideas through any media." Such freedom is an internationally recognized human right in law and in fact.
Google, to its credit, has now fully reevaluated its stance toward China: We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all.
The trouble with China
After a 22-year civil war between extreme right- and left-wing organizations in China, the CCP drove the Kuomintang to Taiwan and established the current government. Following failed social and economic experiments by the CCP -- including the "Great Leap Forward," which killed 36 million people and the "Cultural Revolution," which killed at least 20 million people -- the party finally hit upon a winning formula: Combine government-controlled free trade with old-school Communist authoritarianism.
The goal is to have it both ways: Achieve the wealth of a capitalist democracy, while at the same time avoiding accountability, fair elections and open debate about government policy.
These two opposing philosophies clash irreconcilably when foreign companies seek to provide information services to the Chinese public, as Google is trying to do.
In a "regular" authoritarian country, such as Cuba, North Korea or Burma, the solution is simple: Ban Google and other foreign companies from operating. But China, which wants to sell its goods to the world, must reciprocate by allowing foreign companies to sell goods and services to the Chinese.
So along comes Google, which wants to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." This corporate mission statement stands in direct opposition to the CCP's goal, which is to control the world's information and make sure only the official version of events is available to the Chinese people and also to use the Internet to monitor and hunt down anyone who calls for democracy, freedom or human rights.
So when companies like Google do what they do in China -- providing Internet search results, e-mail services, chat and so on -- all that clashes with what the CCP does, which is censor information, monitor citizen communication and arbitrarily detain people who publically criticize the government. One well-publicized result is that the search on Google images for "Tiananmen Square" favors pictures from the violently suppressed protests from 1989, while in China the same search brings up pictures of happy tourists and sunny parades.
Something's gotta give. Western Internet companies like Google doing business in China naively believed it would be the CCP that would change. But stop-and-go, gradual improvements some perceived a few years ago now appear to have been just another way to silence critics in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Since then, the change is just as gradual, but in the other direction.
That's why groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders all strongly support Google's recent resistance, and why Chinese citizens are anonymously leaving flowers and candles at Google's China headquarters.
This Is Just the Beginning
Globalization is full of challenges. The benefits can be clear and immediate. But there are always unwanted consequences for everybody, including for the Chinese government.
Google's move is just the beginning of a long push-back by the International community over the Chinese governments many abuses. Google's competitor Yahoo has already issued a statement supporting Google. Now all eyes turn to the other US and Western companies making money by collaborating with the CCP in China. And those companies have also become increasingly wary about the Chinese government's censorship.
If China merely required foreign companies to collaborate in the violation of Chinese human rights, things would be much different. These firms exist to maximize value for shareholders, not save the world from authoritarianism. But in addition to the suppression, the Chinese government also abuses its power to advantage Chinese companies and disadvantage foreign ones.
In other words, foreign countries sell out their ethics to get Chinese business, but at the same time the CCP is preventing them from succeeding in China. The European Union Chamber of Commerce in China recently issued a position paper that said doing business in China is getting harder because the government uses protectionism, the legal system and selective protection of intellectual property rights to favor Chinese companies at the expense of foreign ones.
So while Chinese companies expect to gobble up foreign firms like Saab, Volvo and Hummer, for example, foreign investors are limited to a 50-percent stake in Chinese companies they may want to acquire. And while the Chinese government cracks down on the intellectual property theft when the IP belongs to a Chinese company, foreign products are copied, pirated and stolen with near impunity.
For the past 20 years, the prospect of doing business in China has caused a kind of greedy blindness in the eyes of global companies. "Gosh, if we could get just 1% of the market..." But now, as Google has realized, China isn't the market paradise everyone believed.