Agog and Aghast at Google
Religion & Liberty Online

Agog and Aghast at Google

A number of bloggers have expressed grave concerns over Google’s decision to accomodate the demands of the communist government in its web search offerings in China.

David Mills at Mere Comments writes that Google is “serving a brutal government and helping it oppress its people, even if its service will prove only partially effective.” He complains that Google’s motives are purely pecuniary, and that the company is only acceding to the government’s wishes because “If it didn’t help the Chinese government oppress its people, it wouldn’t make much money in China.” Mills notes that Google is following Microsoft and Yahoo search engines in making these concessions

It seems a pretty easy judgment to make: Google is selling out. My first instinct is to agree and throw my lot in with those condemning Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. Google executives have described it as a “difficult decision.” But Mills writes, “There is no ethical dilemma, because they do not have to do business in China at all.”

But this is the point at which such judgments themselves are rather simplistic and superficial. First of all, Google does have a responsibility to its shareholders to seek out new areas of profitability, and the most populous nation on the planet can hardly be overlooked.

The fact is that the people of mainland China are living under a repressive regime. The lack of such fundamental rights as free expression and speech are completely alien to us in the West, and so we react strongly when we hear about censorship and denial of human rights abroad.

But the question then becomes, “What is the best way to move China toward economic, political, and religious freedom?” It has long been assumed by proponents of liberal democracies that these three aspects of freedom are inextricably linked. If you truly have one, then you truly have all three. That position is being put to the test in China and other countries, which are seeking to liberalize elements of the economic and business sectors without substantially altering their hold on religious and political freedoms.
Is economic and political isolation the best way to “punish” the Chinese government for its wrongs? Sadly, sanctions and isolation of governments rarely have the intended effect. Those in power are simply able to blame the West for the problems, and the people who really suffer are the poorest citizens of these nations. There are any number of examples to look at (Castro, Kim Jong Il, Saddam Hussein) to show that economic and political isolation do not accomplish what we wish them to, that they have horrible unintended consequences.

What about political and economic engagement? It is the latter of these that involves the Google case. Google believes that even with the government strictures, even limited and censored engagement with the people of China is better than no engagement. “We firmly believe, with our culture of innovation, Google can make meaningful and positive contributions to the already impressive pace of development in China,” said a Google spokesperson.

Internet Outsider sums up the argument this way: “Although individual expression in China still has miles to go before becoming anything like free speech (at least with regard to criticism of the government), it’s much better than it used to be. If the Internet continues to proliferate and the economy stays strong, moreover, it will continue to improve.”

It’s fair to disagree with Google about the prospects of their method, but it’s hardly fair to paint this as a triumph of “profit over principle.” The situation is much more complex than that, and there simply may be no perfect solution. Economic engagement might just be the most hopeful option, the best of a bad lot.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin says of those who are critical of his company’s decision: “I totally understand that people are upset about it and I think that is a reasonable point of view to take.” The least that the critics can do is to attempt to understand Google’s decision, and even if they don’t agree with it, respect that it is much more complicated than a simple sell out to profiteering.

What Google could do is take a substantial portion of the proceeds from its Chinese operations and give them to global human rights groups that focus on China.

Let’s not forget who the real villains of this story are: the oppressive governments themselves. The rampant criticism of Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo should really be directed at illiberal regimes like China. If China remains on its current course, the belief that economic, political, and religious freedom are necessarily bound up together will be proved as true or shown to be false. Google is betting on the former, and while it may be wrong, it’s a defensible position to take.

If all that happens out of this is that more attention is paid by the West to the human rights situation in China, it will turn out to be a good thing. I haven’t said much about the religious freedom situation there, but in addition to the infringement of political freedoms, the right to freely assemble and worship is highly restricted. Persecution Blog reports that China made Parade’s top 10 Worst Dicators list, “in part because of China’s relentless persecution of Christians.”

Update: Here’s a statement from the Google Blog.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.