A handy cheat sheet for interpreting the Google China story

Should Google have been in China? Did they make the right move in pulling out? Will this influence the Chinese government? What does it mean for foreign businesses in China? Are they evil or not? Who knows? Not me. And none of these questions are going to be answered in this post.

But stick with me, because that’s the point. The fact is that everyone and their goldfish has an opinion on Google’s fortunes in China, but few people actually know anything conclusive, so what we’re getting is a huge dose of punditry, analysis and opinioneering. This is the kind of thing that PR people live for, because what we’re witnessing first hand is the creation of a narrative. Or, rather, several narratives that serve different worldviews, audiences and points of view.

This is PR in action: The effort to influence perception and opinion with regard to an entity or event, generally with the objective of supporting some kind of end-state result (higher sales, a political victory, popular consensus, the launch of a war, etc.).

PR people are often accused of being liars. This is a shame, because a good PR person doesn’t lie or make up facts. I’d like to tell you this is because PR people are noble souls who want only the best for the planet and fuzzy puppies, but the real reason is that lying makes you vulnerable and doesn’t usually work very well (and, yes, it’s also wrong). Lies can often be proved false, and this can cause your position to unravel pretty quickly, often with devastating consequences. Even if you string the lie out long enough to achieve a stated objective, you’ll take damage on the backside if your story comes apart. See, for example, weapons of mass destruction and the Iraq war, which claimed the reputations and legacies of many people.

But PR people do often try to interpret the facts (or obscure them) in specific in selective ways. In the vernacular, we spin things. In fact, the very term “spin doctor” (sometimes credited to the novelist, Saul Bellow) refers to trying to define the interpretation of events or facts — to determine which way they “spin” in the public sphere.

PR people do this for a living. But we’re not the only ones who do it. Anyone with an agenda tries to interpret facts to create a narrative that serves that agenda, or that serves their world view. Often, dueling parties compete to establish the defining narrative of a situation or event. Consider how Democrats and Republicans competed to establish the narrative for health care reform in the interest of divergent political objectives. The media and public spheres of discussion are thus, often, noisy and squawky collections of competing narratives interpreted or distorted from the same basic set of facts in order to serve different agendas. Sometimes it takes a long time for a “definitive” narrative to emerge. Sometimes a definitive narrative never emerges, or different audiences arrive at divergent narratives because they’re exposed to different influences (anyone who looks at how Chinese and Western audiences fail to see eye-to-eye on many issues will be familiar with this).

This is essentially what has been happening with Google over the past few weeks, as people have competed to establish different narratives regarding its withdrawal from China. There has been a huge amount written and said about Google’s predicament and options in both the Chinese and Western media and blogospheres. At last count I had 27 articles bookmarked since the announcement that Google would shift it’s Chinese search operation to Hong Kong. And there were plenty that I didn’t bother to bookmark.

Well, that’s just too much damned stuff to analyze, and I am way too lazy to pore through it with a notebook and try to draw any meaningful conclusions about what it all means (hey, I don’t get paid for this). Also, my overwhelming impression is that there is so far roughly zero consensus on what it all means.

What I did do, however, was to put together a handy chart that shows the key known facts, and, based upon all the articles I’ve read, how each of the major interest groups that I observe is spinning or reacting to each of those facts. In each case, the vertical thread through the series of facts creates the skeleton of a narrative. And that’s what each of these parties –Google, its rivals, the Chinese government, the Western activist community– is trying to do: They’re each trying to control and define the narrative of Google’s situation in China to serve their own agendas. They are, in other words spinning. Here is what the result looks like:

Google perspectives

I realize this is a vast oversimplification and there are no doubt various interests omitted, but this captures most of the main parties and facts. What’s not included here is any kind of conclusion of each narrative. In my opinion, the story is still unfolding and its too early for that. But we’ll see how things go over the next few weeks.

The other thing is that these narratives aren’t in equal competition. To use a possibly inappropriate military metaphor, there are different theaters of operation in which the stakeholder have varying levels of influence. So, in the US, Google and the activist (and analyst) community are the loudest voices. in China, the Chinese government has the tools to define the public narrative, and has been using them liberally, although there is some ferment in the margins (also here).

Eventually, there will be a canonical version of Google’s misadventures in China. or at least one canonical version in the West and one in China. These may not be the creation of a single group. One group might control interpretation of one element of the story, and one group control another. But for the moment, the fun is in watching the battle to own the story. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Finally, from a PR perspective, there is possibly one overarching lesson that can be drawn from this whole situation. I can’t take credit for this insight, it comes from Craig Adams, a colleague of mine. But it’s deceptively straightforward and I agree with it wholeheartedly. He said that if you have to sell out your basic principles to do business in China, that’s a pretty good sign you should reconsider your plans.

Other sources (just to prove I’ve done my homework):


Google detonates the China corporate communications script (January, 2010)

Note: Table slightly updated to correct “mainland” to “Greater China”.

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24 Responses to A handy cheat sheet for interpreting the Google China story

  1. Pingback: Google Redirects! But Will The Chinese Government Block?! | china/divide

  2. Kai says:

    LoL, love the chart. All hail the Imagethief! Long live the Imagethief!

  3. Shannon says:

    Nice work! One quibble: according to everything I’ve read, Google had 30% “by revenue” — which is significantly different from 30% “market share”, and not even playing the same statistical game as “30% of Chinese net users searched there”.

  4. Pingback: Has the clock struck for Google in China… | Jottings from the Granite Studio

  5. Pingback: Google Search Now Blocked in China | ChinaGeeks – translation and analysis of modern chinese society, politics, and internet

  6. Great post. Thanks for the extensive homework and thoughtful insights on this. Sorry I’ve only found your blog now as I have been in mainland China the past two weeks. best of luck.

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  8. Josh says:

    Great post, and as always I love the analysis you provide from a PR standpoint.

    Oversimplified? Maybe, but sometimes that’s what it takes.

  9. Marcus says:

    Very true.

    And yet I tend to think the upside is that cognitive awareness of the meta-narrative is becoming more common. We’re all just a little better at narrative deconstructive every day. We could worry that the Tea Party disproves that, but I’m not quite so sure that their not aware of their own complicity in the meta.

    On the flipside, your narrative shows a version of the story that also leaves out important considerations, in particular, not all arguments and biases are equal. While none of them may have all the facts, they have some facts and/or experience that informs their judgments and bias. You’re pretty close to explicitly supporting a moral relativist stance, even though that’s probably unintended.

    Which helps proves the point: not all narratives are equal, yours is intentionally more informative, educational and honest than most of us expect from the narratives of the two governments or Google. Many activists (my bias) are intending to do right. And the users in China aren’t quite as uninformed as we’d like to think.

  10. Luca Bastos says:

    PR here, PR there… tweeter or blog?

  11. Elyse says:

    Agree with Kai, I *love* the chart! :)

    “Imagine our joy”

    and yes, PR people are angels. Seriously.

  12. wgj says:

    Utterly brilliant. Seriously.

  13. There is another narrative or explanation.

    And that is, very few know all the facts, and the people who do aren’t talking.

    So that means all the different narratives are based on an incomplete knowledge of the facts, and are therefore, speculative.

  14. Liz Mitchell says:

    Ah, this chart has definitely eased if not organized some of the confusion from reading so many commentaries on this issue. Great to read your blog again!

  15. Will says:

    Hey, Paul

    You’re right that not all the facts are publicly known or incorporated, but that’s actually typical in a situation like this. Both Google and the Chinese government arguably know all the facts, and both are being selective in what they choose to release, balancing their desire to use facts to shape the narrative with the need to preserve confidentiality or business options. This is pretty typical in crisis management. One of the things that can disrupt a narrative very quickly is the emergence of previously hidden facts that are inconsistent with it. That’s why we often tell a client in a crisis to get all the bad news out up front, so there are fewer risks to a narrative of reconstruction or recovery. For an example of this not working out, see Toyota’s recent troubles.

    Few public narratives are based on “all the facts”. Selectively emphasizing certain ones is, perhaps regrettably, part of the craft.

  16. Kudos, absolutely brilliant.

    In my opinion, though, it’s not your chart so much that is oversimplified, but rather people’s opinions.

    I suppose that includes mine, as I fall squarely in the “Chinese Net Users” column.

  17. Thanks for the overview. I have been getting both “sides” of the story having spent last week in the US and this week in China. This helps to clarify a number of questions i had.

    Question: Do you/does anyone know what the impact of GMAIL, Google Docs, etc. will be in mainland china?

  18. dewang says:

    Interesting chart, but the “Chinese Net Users” column is seriously flawed. Let’s see – you had 2 “pro-China” sources. How about adding at least 5 more to your list?

    Here is my take on the Chinese Net Users:

    30% market share:

    It’s more like 12-15% on google.cn. Just don’t do anything stupid to get Google.com blocked altogether. That’d put the remaining 15-18% at risk!

    Gmail hacked:

    Provide evidence or file a report with Chinese authorities – otherwise is a smearing campaign, which it turned out to be.

    Offering censored results:

    We use Google to find out more about Obama, global warming, and how to get into American colleges.

    Moving to google.com.hk:

    I should switch over to Baidu.com. google.cn might be de-registered soon and no more forwarding.

    google.com.hk filtered:

    Who cares?

    Google’s partners:

    Does Google give a damn? Think twice before partnering with a “do no evil” company.

  19. eswn says:

    Re: Paul Denlinger’s comment

    Atrios/Eschaton blog: http://www.eschatonblog.com/2010/02/clearances.html

    At a conference I was at this week, Daniel Ellsberg recounted a time in 1969 when he explained to Henry Kissinger what would happen after he was given the dozen or so clearances above Top Secret (the existence of which is also classified, of course). What happens first is you feel like a fool. You’ve published books that you now discover were filled with stuff that was wrong. You have believed you understood how things worked for your entire professional life, but you now find out you were completely wrong, that the real world is entirely different from what you have been told. The books you’ve written, the lectures you’ve given are based on a false understanding of the world.

    But this stage only lasts a few weeks. After you have been reading this material hitherto unavailable to you for a while, you begin to see everybody else as fools. Only with people with these top level clearances know the truth. People whom you previously regarded as experts become ignoramuses, doubly so because they don’t realize that they actually know nothing.

  20. Interesting chart and interpretation ! And so are the comments !

  21. TG says:

    Enjoyable article and useful chart, however, one key piece of information is missing. According to several sources, the Chinese hackers were stealing Google’s source code. This is a bigger threat than any censorship problem.

    What if they were simply to post the source code information on the internet – no more Google!

    This is the first of many cyberwars we are going to see in the future.

  22. Pingback: A Google-China Cheat Sheet. Rio Tinto. Rio Tinto. Rio Tinto. | Manufacturer China

  23. perspectivehere says:

    Great post!

    May I suggest that you add another column in your chart to cover the “U.S. taxpayer”. Hacking incident leads taxpayers (via our democratically-elected representatives in Congress) to approve funding of “cybersecurity” so we can all feel safer. Isn’t that where the biggest dollar payback for the PR will happen?

    A few years down the road we’ll hear about the cybersecurity equivalent of the $1,500 toilet seat.

    “White House Cyber Czar: ‘There Is No Cyberwar’”

  24. Corbett says:

    I’ll toss in as many acronyms as possible just to be web worthy.

    I betcha all the guys in CALI are all humming the tune BATNA! Nananananananananana BATNA! This is just classic Chinese negotiation strategy used in a, well – classic Chinese negotiation strategy. What’s Google’s best alternative to a negotiated agreement in this case? How about this scenario – “Since this is a FUBAR situation already, let’s really stick it to the Hu-man. We’ll look good representing the red white and blue (they really need it these days) and oh, and lest ye forget – no one messes with us Stanford guys…”

    FWIW, it’s interesting to note that GOOG stock took a bit of a dip when SHTF but the trajectory is clearly up and up. Pure SWAG of course. But I think GOOG clearly will make up for any lost market share with increased profits overall, plus a kick in the collective balls of MSFT and YHOO.