WASHINGTON - When Google employees first learned of the company’s project known as Dragonfly, there was an internal uprising.
It is easy to see why. The project, a search engine for China, would not only help a totalitarian regime censor the web, it could also track internet users. Thousands of Googlers, as Google’s employees are known, eventually went public with their opposition, signing an open letter in protest of the project. Is it any surprise that a company that canceled a contract with the Pentagon to sort through drone video images would be queasy about helping the Chinese Communist Party consolidate control over its people?
But there is another view within Google: that Dragonfly is not diametrical but crucial to the company’s mission. These employees — some 500 of them so far — have also signed a letter making their case on an internal company message board. Interestingly, the campaign was organized by Chinese nationals inside Google.
The letter, which Techcrunch — a U.S. online publisher of tech-industry news — first reported last month, argues that Google needs to at least try to get back into China before writing off a country of almost 1.4 billion people. “The standards of acceptable surveillance are unclear,” says an appendix to the letter, which Techcrunch did not publish. (I obtained it independently from a source inside the company, who also told me about its provenance.)
Google has yet to announce its plans for Dragonfly. But one core issue raised by this letter goes far beyond Google: how the Chinese government pressures and deploys its citizens in order to expand its power and influence.
It sounds paranoid. But the role of Chinese citizens in Chinese statecraft is raising concerns in official and unofficial Washington. Members of Congress have warned about Chinese students in U.S. universities. The Justice Department has a new initiative aimed in part at prosecuting unregistered Chinese agents of influence.
Chinese defense universities often task promising students with missions to obtain valuable technology abroad, for example, according to a recent report from the Hoover Institution. Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Hoover, told me: “If you understand how China operates, it would be shocking to the point of disbelief if they were not in an organized fashion trying to penetrate Google.”
Google has a difficult history in China. Google’s leadership was initially (and cautiously) optimistic about bringing its search engine to China in 2006. Google developed a compromise with the Chinese government: Users would be informed when search results were being filtered.
By 2009, however, that optimism had turned to dread with the discovery that hackers had stolen information on Chinese dissidents, along with source code for the company’s treasured search engine.
Even after the hack, Google — like all Silicon Valley companies — continued to hire Chinese engineers and computer scientists. Spokesmen for Google would not comment on the record, nor did they provide information on how many of the 80,000 employees of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, are Chinese nationals.
Chinese nationals inside Google have at times clashed with its techno-libertarian culture. One infamous example, detailed in a book by the former head of Google’s “people operations,” comes from 2008, when the company cafeteria offered employees a “Free Tibet Goji-Chocolate Creme Pie.” This offended a Chinese national at the company, who sent an email to Chief Executive Larry Page. The chef was immediately suspended — then, after a companywide email thread that at the time was the longest in Google history, reinstated. An engineer who was at Google at the time told me the whole controversy was “ridiculous.”
The Tibetan pie incident is trivial compared with the implications of Dragonfly. But the basic issue is the same: Chinese citizens are subjects of a totalitarian government. This does not mean that every Chinese national at Google is a spy or a plant. It does mean that Chinese Googlers are more likely to face pressure from their government than Googlers who come from more open societies. Just like the old Soviet Union, the Chinese state views its people as its appendages.
Is Google taking this issue seriously? A Google spokesman told me that the company has no special screening mechanism for hiring Chinese nationals — such as whether their relatives are senior members of the Communist Party or whether they were schooled at universities entwined with the military — beyond what the company does to verify the employment history and expertise of any other prospective employees.
Ten years ago, that approach would not have been controversial. The West was still optimistic that, over time, China would become a more open economy and society. Indeed, companies like Google were supposed to help make China “more like us.” Now it’s becoming clearer that it’s just as likely to be the other way around.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy..