The raison d’être of a business/ Google and political reform

Google in 1998, showing the original logo
Image via Wikipedia

by Shefaly

What is the raison d’être of a business*? To serve a societal or consumer need? To make profits for the shareholders? To keep the stakeholders happy? To create jobs? To realise the vision of the entrepreneur? Any combination of these?

What about social and political reform? Can that be the raison d’être of a commercial business? Would that not be called “profiteering” since any profits will necessarily be about taking advantage of some people’s miseries.

Google, whose original justification for entering China and agreeing to censorship did not convince me, and whose recent strategic moves leave me less than impressed, is now publishing a report on Google service accessibility from within mainland China.

I don’t imagine it uses up much resource for Google to generate that report. But the question must be asked:

What is the point of this exercise and what, if any, strategic aims of Google are likely to be furthered by it?

I frankly find the exercise pointless. Those in the world, who passionately care about the issues of freedom of speech (yours truly included) and political freedom, have a fair idea about what information China blocks. Many of us have friends and business contacts, who straddle China and HK, and do not hesitate to share how their web experience changes in the mainland and the hoops they jump through to circumvent the Great Firewall of China. So Google’s report is quite likely to be preaching to the choir.

If the report is about naming-and-shaming China into something, I think Google is once again over-reaching its raison d’être as a business. Moreover, having lain once with the dogs and now woken with fleas, it can now hardly be a credible turncoat.

Further the timing of such a shaming exercise couldn’t be worse. One could say that Google is just trying to add its voice to the growing discontent in USA with China’s direct impact on the SME and the manufacturing sector, whether through trade and through protectionism. But in reality, China is holding the USA by the short & curlies. Any posturing at this time could only serve to damage diplomatic relations further, especially as the balance is no longer unquestionably favourable to the USA.

My money – and I daresay the smart money of those, who understand nuance and the complex dance of cross-cultural business – is on that Google should do its duty as a business and not try to bring about political or social reform in China. At the very least, any such action reeks of hubris; at the kindest, of naïveté. And when one hopes to do business across cultures, neither is very helpful.

What about the Chinese people and their freedom of speech then?

With a rich, if somewhat inscrutable to us, heritage, the Chinese are hardly a stupid or insentient people. When they are fed up enough, they will redeem themselves.

* n.b. The word “business” here is used to indicate a commercial, profit-making enterprise, funded by private individuals and/ or other commercial institutions. A body such as UNHCR or Amnesty International would not be a “business” by this definition.

Late edits (March the 25th): Links on the issue: My agreement is not a necessary condition for links to be included.

Google’s slow boat from China or slow death? (Telegraph);

Google’s Quixotic China challenge (Business Week);

Google, China and the Art of War (Guardian); via Salil who has commented below;

While you read an explanation of why Google’s move saves face for China, remember the flanking manoeuvre as applicable to diversified businesses.

China Unicom won’t allow Google on mobiles using Android

China reminds Sergey Brin of Russia and WSJ in a hilarious moment says he is using that experience to shape Google’s China strategy. Hilarious because Brin left Russia when he was 6!  His parents remained and tolerated Russia till they were good and ready. They redeemed themselves, when they were ready. Just as the Chinese will.

Google also censors elsewhere: Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Brazil, Burma, Cuba, Ethiopia, Fiji, Indonesia, India, Iran, Morocco, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Syria, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, the UAE, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

More on India’s “reasonable restrictions” on free speech here.

Rape, pillage and philanthropy: via Hemant, who has also commented below.

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