A Google app store would face censorship concerns, no less than its search engine.

Photographer: Li Xin/AFP/Getty Images

Is Google Going Back Into China?

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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Nearly five years after grandly pulling out of China due to hacking and censorship concerns, Google may be looking to return. According to two reports that emerged late last week, the search giant hopes to open a local version of its Google Play mobile app store in order to tap the world’s largest mobile phone market. From a business standpoint, the decision would seem to be a wise one. Android is the most popular mobile operating system in China, and in the absence of Google Play, homegrown app stores have developed into a multibillion-dollar business poised for more growth. Google, which developed Android, is clearly anxious to get a cut of those profits.

But for Google, operating in China has never been a simple business matter. Prior to the company’s decision to enter China in 2006, the company’s leadership was heavily conflicted by requirements that Google censor search results in accordance with government guidelines. The decision to leave in 2010 wasn’t any easier. But once it was made, Google co-founder Sergey Brin defended the move on both ethical and business grounds, even telling Der Spiegel that he didn’t feel Google was sacrificing long-term opportunity in China by leaving:

If you adopt that point of view then you would agree to completely arbitrary limitations and distortion. If you take the point of view that you have to be friendly with the Chinese government and they can make arbitrary demands of you, then you can't really run a business. I really don't think that is a practicable way to proceed.

This raises an obvious question: If China wasn’t practicable four years ago, what makes Brin and Google think it is now? In fact, in the four years since Google withdrew, the Chinese government’s efforts to control the Internet have only become more overt and heavy-handed. Relative to 2010, more foreign sites are blocked by China’s so-called Great Firewall, while China's own state media report that more than 2 million Chinese are employed to “monitor” the Internet on the mainland. In just the last year, the Chinese government has imposed strict content and nation-of-origin guidelines on Chinese streaming video sites. Last week the government blocked thousands of additional foreign sites in advance of a global Internet conference being hosted in Wuzhen.

That easily mocked affair was attended mostly by Chinese companies and officials. But anyone who would dismiss Beijing's ambitions should remember that China now has more Internet users than the United States has people. The Chinese government is keen to leverage that demographic fact to demand a bigger role in regulating an Internet “governed by all of us,” in the words of Premier Li Keqiang, who attended the conference. Though China remains vague about the kind of influence it's seeking globally, it certainly envisions a situation where the desire of governments to control content trumps the free flow of information which Google's founders embrace.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Google is seeking Chinese partners for a Chinese version of the Play store. That might help win over Chinese officials still smarting from Google’s denunciation of Beijing's Internet policies. But it won't insulate Google from the very same censorship issues it faced in 2010. In recent years, for instance, the Chinese version of Apple's iTunes store has obeyed government orders to remove anti-censorship apps and content that references the Dalai Lama. Blaming a similar sellout on its Chinese partners is hardly going to help Google in the realm of public opinion. 

Nor is there any guarantee that Google Play will be able to steal market share away from established players like Qihoo -- or that the Chinese government has any intention of letting them compete without interference. Indeed, if Google does choose to return to the mainland, no one should be under any illusions about the rules under which the company will be forced to operate. At least in the eyes of its leaders, China's "arbitrary limitations" on foreign Internet companies have worked just fine since 2010 -- and they're not about to be eased for Google or anyone else. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net