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Can Google Make A Successful Comeback In China?

News of Google’s planning to return to the China market with a censored search app, and the Internet giants talks with Tencent Holdings, Inspur Group and other Chinese companies to offer its cloud services in the country has created waves in the Web universe. China’s biggest search engine Baidu Inc. said it is ready to take on Google. In a posting on his official WeChat messaging account, as per Bloomberg, company CEO Robin Li said Baidu plans to fight Google if it enters the market so that it will “win again” in Internet search. Of course, history has witnessed China’s huge apathy towards foreign companies and the strong censorships and ban on organizations planning to enter the Chinese market. In this context it would be interesting to observe if Google can seek a business opportunity in the land and emerge successful.

Google’s search engine has been largely blocked in China since 2010, when the company exited the market over ethical concerns related to China’s strict censorship laws. Baidu dominates the domestic search engine space currently. 

Over the past decade, China has blocked Google, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as well as thousands of other foreign websites. A slew of Chinese websites emerged to serve similar functions, even though they came with a heavy dose of censorship. Experts believe, China is exporting its model of a censored internet to other countries, including Vietnam, Tanzania and Ethiopia.

China’s Communist Party stated that it will continue to exercise ideological control under President Xi Jinping. In the first half of 2018, the internet regulator Cyber Administration of China said it had shut down or revoked the licenses of more than 3,000 websites, according to an NY Times report. For example, Apple has removed hundreds of apps from its Chinese app store in the past year under increasingly strict censorship laws championed by the Chinese president.

This according to the Western world, is a big threat to internet freedom, as the purpose of the web is to build open and transparent societies. Therefore despite several attempts of failure to enter the market, American internet giants are still trying. Google has been working on a censored search engine for China’s smartphone users hoping that the government will loosen its stand. In July, Facebook gained approval to open a subsidiary in the eastern province of Zhejiang but again the approval quickly withdrawn.

The people culture is also apathetic towards foreign apps and websites. In a recent survey, two economists from Peking University and Stanford University concluded this that Chinese college students were indifferent about having access to uncensored, politically sensitive information. They had reportedly given nearly 1,000 students at two Beijing universities free tools to bypass censorship, but found that nearly half the students did not use them. Among those who did, almost none spent time browsing foreign news websites that were blocked.

But again, are they cheering Baidu domination of China’s search engine sector? The answer is ‘no’ as Baidu is not uniformly favorite by Chinese consumers. Users often complain about the quality of its rankings and fraudulent advertisements that appear in search results.

According to NYTimes, early reactions from Chinese internet users to news of a possible Google search engine re-launch have been mixed—some express indifference given Google’s offering will be censored much like Baidu, while others anticipate that Google will provide a better service than its domestic rival.

Needles to say however that no search engine in China can exist without censoring search results. This means posting no stories about topics the ruling Communist Party considers sensitive. Hence, Google will have to prepare itself for severe backlash from free speech and open internet advocates if it is planning to re-launch a search engine in China.

The other area is Cloud business, as Bloomberg reported that Google is also in talks with Tencent to help launch a cloud service in China. That’s a sector where both companies have room for improvement. In China, Tencent ranks as the number-three cloud service provider—behind Alibaba and state-owned China Telecom, but ahead of Baidu and other players. And Google with a 5 percent share in the lucrative cloud market globally, is looking to capture a bigger pie. This would be another interesting area to watch out!

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