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Why Google’s Rumored Return to China’s Censored Screens Isn’t a Game-Changer

6 minute read

Eight years after their very public falling out, could China and Google be pals once again?

Whispers circulating Monday, first reported by The Intercept, suggested that Google would soon launch a Chinese version of its search engine that will kowtow to the Chinese Communist Party by scrubbing various bête noires: not least criticism of its human-rights record, calls for Tibetan independence and the bloodshed around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Free speech advocates have condemned the reports, which have since been confirmed by anonymous Google sources to other media. Amnesty International warned complying with the Great Firewall — the world’s most sophisticated state-censorship apparatus, employing at least 2 million online censors — would constitute “a gross attack on freedom of information and internet freedom.” It would also mean Google would have to block search results in China for currently verboten Western media, such as the New York Times, Bloomberg and, indeed, TIME.

Charlie Smith, cofounder of Greatfire.org, which fights Internet censorship in China, tells TIME that Google likely has a range of self-censored products ready to release in China. “And then this type of censorship will spread to other countries that [either] have adopted … the Chinese Internet censorship system or … have similar attractiveness as a market,” Smith, who uses a pseudonym, writes by email.

But it’s misleading to present any move as a paradigm shift. After all, Google complied with Chinese censorship from entering the Chinese market in 2005 until 2010, when in response to alleged government hacking of Gmail, the Menlo Park behemoth shifting operations from the mainland to Hong Kong and stopped filtering content. It was then swiftly banned by Beijing.

The decision to effectively quit China was apparently pushed by co-founder Sergey Brin, who had a personal loathing of state censorship from his childhood in Soviet Russia. But Google’s decision was always underpinned by business. Google’s share of Chinese search traffic fell from around 30% to just teens over its five years in the Middle Kingdom, with local rival Baidu establishing itself as the market leader. That doesn’t bode well for any relaunch.

Read more: Baidu’s Robin Li is Helping China Win the 21st Century

“The Chinese tech landscape has changed so dramatically and Baidu has become so entrenched, at least in the search space, that whatever Google may have learned in the time it’s been away is unlikely to make up for all of the lost ground,” says Mark Natkin, founder of Beijing-based IT research firm Marbridge Consulting.

Today, Baidu captures more than 80% of Chinese search traffic. Its local maps function, AI-powered search and mandarin-language recognition functions are lightyears ahead of Google. Baidu is utterly embedded in the fabric of Chinese tech: It has deep ties with the Chinese government and even contributes to course curriculum at Chinese universities.

“As a user, I think Baidu has a lot lacking,” says Rui Ma, a Silicon Valley angel investor focused on China. “So technologically, Google has a chance, but it’s not really about technology at this point. Baidu has a whole ecosystem and Google probably won’t be able to bring its whole suite of products [to China] immediately.”

Lee Kai-Fu, head of Google in China at the time of its withdrawal, was candid about the difficulty of breaking into the Chinese market when he spoke to TIME last year.

“For a foreign company to move from one country to another, it’s not just changing the look, feel, culture and language. If your app is in the U.S., you might start promoting on Facebook, but that entire skill-set is useless in China. You have to learn how to promote using WeChat. And the way you build a community, do customer service, is all different.”

It’s also uncertain whether the Chinese government would be willing to allow even a censored version of Google. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been trying for years to be allowed into China, even engaging in much-ridiculed publicity stunts like jogging through smog-choked Beijing. Only last month did the social media giant have some success: although it was fleeting.

For several hours, a Chinese government database showed that Facebook had gained approval to open a $30 million Chinese subsidiary innovation hub in Hangzhou, home of Jack Ma’s online shopping empire Alibaba. But then suddenly the registration disappeared, and references to it were censored in Chinese media.

It was yet another sign for how the Chinese tech environment has shrunk in recent years. This shows no signs of abating. Apple has been forced to remove VPN software — which allows users to leap over the Great Firewall — from its China app store and to store Chinese users’ personal data in Chinese government-linked servers. Skype and WhatsApp are now blocked in China. AirBnB has had to store data for Chinese customers on local servers to avoid the same fate. China’s national Internet regulator shutdown more than 13,000 websites in the three years to December, and another 3,000 websites in the first half of this year alone.

Read more: Why Trump’s Trade War With China Is So Risky

Little wonder a source privy to Google’s negotiations to reenter China told the New York Times that efforts “were not going well.” Google still maintains more than 700 employees in China, and last year unveiled plans to open an Artificial Intelligence-focused research center here. In June, it invested $550 million in the Chinese online retailer JD.com. But allowing one of America’s largest firms to resume operations doesn’t appear to be in the interests of Beijing’s Made in China 2025 plan to dominate certain strategic hi-tech industries.

“Policymakers here are incredibly pragmatic,” says Natkin, “The space that they’ll create for foreign players is usually directly related to what they can do for China.”

Given the huge strides Chinese tech has made in recent years, it isn’t clear what Google is in a position to offer China from a strategic standpoint. And with a trade war between the world’s two largest economies escalating almost daily, adds Natkin, “China isn’t in a hurry to do any favors for the Trump administration.”

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Write to Charlie Campbell / Beijing at charlie.campbell@time.com