The reaction from the Chinese government to Google’s threat to leave the country shows that officials really have got their knickers in a twist and are trying to work out what to do.
Wang Chen, the top censor in the country, has made a bland statement that censorship must be maintained, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs briefing descended into a farce as the spokesman deflected every Google question to "the competent authorities".
When asked who the competent authorities were, she said she would "ask the relevant authorities to find out who are the competent authorities". Obviously the government is deeply concerned about the damage that Google’s withdrawal could do and has not yet formulated a response.
Meanwhile, two interesting, if slightly fringe, theories developed today about Google’s motivation for its threat. According to the Wall Street Journal, Google HQ was deeply divided over whether to pull out of China. Eric Schmidt, the chief executive, thought it was better to continue in the country while Sergey Brin, who spent time in the Soviet Union in his youth and is thought to have strong views on censorship, strongly advocated pulling out.
If you believe that Google’s motivation was spurred by more than China’s abuses of human rights, and possibly by business concerns, these two theories will be grist to your mill.
TechCrunch, a technology blog, suggests that Google has one eye on Baidu, which may shortly move into position as its biggest rival in online search. Yahoo had 8.9 billion searches in July 2009, Baidu had 8 billion. By pulling out of China, Google damages Baidu both in the short term and in the long run, so the argument goes.
In the short term, Google marks out Baidu as being in the pocket of the Chinese government. By contrast, Google was unable to stomach censorship. That could harm Baidu not only in the eyes of web users, but also in the eyes of politicians and regulators who are charged with looking over Baidu’s future international acquisitions, if it seeks a global market.
In the long run, Baidu will be less motivated to improve itself and the pool of talented developers and engineers will not grow as quickly without Google hiring people.
The second theory comes from Tom Foremski, a former FT hack. He says that Google is aiming to be completely free of the shackles of individual nations. Why should Chinese users use Google.cn rather than the global Google.com? Google.com, after all, is available in Chinese. If Google can persuade Chinese users to migrate to its larger platform, it doesn’t have to obey any particular laws in the countries where it operates.
Mr Foremski points out that the company has already tried this approach in Korea. Last year, the South Korean government introduced a new law required people posting videos to use their real names and websites to collect these real names. In response, Google simply blocked Korean users from using the Korean YouTube site and told them to use YouTube in other countries.
The neat sidestep showed the limits of government power and jurisdiction, says Mr Foremski, and Google is using the same trick here again.