Google's carefully worded blog post today explaining why they redirected mainland Chinese traffic to the Hong Kong version of Google sounds fair and balanced. In fact, it's a humiliating slap in the face for the Chinese government. Here's why.
Because Google was used by hackers most likely working for the Chinese government to track down political activists and to steal Google's intellectual property -- and because they were forced by the government to censor the Internet -- Google decided that such evil wasn't worth the money they might make by rolling over for the authoritarian government. No more censorship.
(If you're tempted to argue equivalency with, say, German censorship of Nazi-related content or censorship of hate speech and child pornography in the West, note that in addition to consumer and social sites, the Chinese government censors the words "dictatorship," "anti-communist," "genocide," "oppression," and related web sites. The Chinese government even forced Google, whose motto is "don't be evil" to censor the word "evil." Here's a more complete list of what the Chinese government censors.)
The Chinese government told Google that censoring the Internet for the Chinese Communist Party is Chinese law. Obey the law, or leave the country.
Google's solution was to redirect traffic from the mainland Chinese site, google.cn, to the Hong Kong site, which is google.com.hk. Mainland Chinese laws don't apply in Hong Kong, so there is far less censorship on that site.
This is something of a worst-case scenario for the Chinese government. It brings huge attention to the special privileges afforded to Hong Kong residents, who have a whole range of relative political freedoms. It leaves the Chinese government with three options:
1. Block mainland access to Hong Kong, which exacerbates frustration with Hong Kong's special status and creates resentment on the mainland
2. Shut down the Hong Kong site, which creates resentment among powerful elites in Hong Kong
3. Allow Chinese citizens access to an uncensored Internet
None of these options are acceptable to the Chinese government. All put a massive spotlight on a set of facts that the Chinese government works hard to keep in the shadows. Despite spectacular economic growth, the Chinese government is in fact a backward authoritarian one-party regime, more akin to Cuba, Burma or pre-invasion Iraq than to the group of leading democracies it pretends equality with or superiority to. Google's redirect move lays that truth bare for all to see, especially inside China.
Don't be fooled by Google's fair-minded tone. This was a humiliating slap in the face of the highest order.