India can not be compared with China

Vivek (CA ) (2368 Points)

13 January 2010  

Google's threat to China is an opportunity for India
13 Jan 2010, 1614 hrs IST, Vikram Doctor, ET Bureau

MUMBAI: Google's threat to withdraw from China over ethical concerns on doing business there comes on the heels of the Delhi High Court's 
decision that no one in India, not even its peers on the Supreme Court are exempt from the needs for transparency. The two might not seem automatically connected, yet if the Indian government was smart it would make the link. Because the two stories most sharply highlight the essential differences between China and India. 

Google's decision will almost definitely be downplayed or abused by the Chinese government, who will allege everything from this being the latest manifestation of Western imperialism - private sector this time - to the sour grapes of a company that could not compete with home grown competitors like Google has certainly been having difficulties in China, but for a company this large, that is hardly the reason for it to quit. It is, for example, also trailing in South Korea, but no one is talking about Google quitting that country. 

As almost anyone other than the usual Chinese lackeys will admit, Google's threat is primarily driven by its frustration with doing business with a country whose very ethos so fundamentally conflicts with Google's own. The company's 'Don't Be Evil' slogan has been much mocked as being untenably naïve for any large company, and perhaps it is, but that doesn't mean the company does not try, in however makeshift a way, to live up to it.
Google's top executives have agonised about the increasing extent they have had to given in to the Chinese government's demands for control of information, and evidently some breaking point has now been reached. The company strongly suspects that the cyber attacks it has faced in China have been inspired by the government, for whom even the unprecedented concessions Google has made for China are not enough. This then is the breaking point: no matter the huge potential of China, Google feels that it can only compromise so far. 

It is an Emperor's New Clothes moment, made all the stronger by the fact that the company doing the calling out is no small one, but one of the largest and most influential in the world. The immediate impact within China will probably be negligible, exactly because of the censorship that the Chinese government maintains, but the cumulative impact will not be small. At the very least it throws an uncomfortable spotlight on all the other companies, particularly those involved in the information and knowledge industries, who are acquiescing with Chinese control; Mr.Rupert Murdoch, for one, can expect some tough questioning. 

China is now also under attack from quarters that have often left it alone. The Green movement is now a potent force, and has squarely blamed China for undermining Copenhagen. China's exploitation of African resources, and its conniving with dictators for this, are also drawing uncomfortable attention. And even Asian countries which have long been very circumspect where China is concerned, are raising questions about how its economic performance is undermining their own, and about China's investment in infrastructure projects which are looking increasingly like means to acquire resources and create employment for its own labour, who are nearly always used rather than creating local employment. 
For the Indian government, which was happy to play China's sidekick in Copenhagen, there are urgent lessons to draw from this. We must certainly not antagonise such a large and powerful neighbour - yet we must equally surely make subtle attempts to emphasise our difference from it. The Delhi High Court's verdict is a fine example, showing our genuinely independent judiciary emphasising the need for transparency for all. It is a verdict that needs to be upheld by the Supreme Court as admirable in principle - and the fact that nothing like it would ever come out from China is a minor plus, but one well worth highlighting. 

The Indian government must also keep its impulses towards authoritarianism under control. We can (reluctantly) accept that in a country as diverse and contentious as ours, there may be occasional needs to control information. But it must be very much a last choice, not the default option. Not just from any abstract commitment to free speech, but for the very practical reason that this is what makes companies like Google eager to business with us. We have the large consumer base, the young population, the technical skills and cheap manufacturing ability of China - and we are not (hopefully) breathing down your neck on everything you do. 

In the past the Chinese-Indian comparison game has been played mostly to our demerit by China. It has told multinationals that India might have democracy, but that also means unions, infrastructure delays, political problems, public scrutiny... We have helped China by being unforgivably inefficient too often, and proving their case. We now have the opportunity to show that we can be efficient - maybe not as much as a ruthless authoritarian government can be - but efficient enough, and yet open and humane about how we do it. 

The best example of this is also one of our most visible new landmarks - Mumbai's new Sea Link. Its initial design was changed, at huge expense, because of a political decision driven by the interests of local fishermen. The cable-stayed portion, which is its most distinctive feature, is simply to allow their boats to pass below. In China one can only imagine what would have been the fate of those protesting fishermen, but here their interests were accommodated - in an unforgivably delayed and clumsy way, its true, yet it was done. 

Google may not realise it, but its threat to China is a tacitly an endorsement of processes like these. We must work at reducing delays, companies must accommodate the occasional compromises this requires, but in the end we can arrive at solutions that are acceptable both to Indian and international standards, if never Chinese ones - and are all the better for that.