Google’s decision to confront the Chinese government is an early sign that the Americans are getting fed up with dealing with Chinese authoritarianism. But the biggest pressures are likely to come from politicians rather than businessmen. Google is an unusual company in an unusually politicised industry. If the Googlers do indeed head for the exits in China, they are unlikely to be crushed by a stampede of other multinationals rushing to follow them. To most big companies the country’s market is too large and tempting to ignore. Despite Google, US business is likely to remain the lobby that argues hardest for continuing engagement with China.
The pressures for disengagement will come from labour activists, security hawks and politicians – particularly in Congress. To date, the Obama administration has based its policy firmly on the assumptions that have governed America’s approach to China for a generation. The president’s recent set-piece speech on Asia was a classic statement of the case for US engagement with China – complete with the ritualistic assertion that America welcomes China’s rise. But, after being censored by Chinese television in Shanghai and harangued by a junior Chinese official at the Copenhagen climate talks, Barack Obama may be feeling less warm towards Beijing. An early sign that the White House is hardening its policy could come in the next few months, with an official decision to label China a “currency manipulator”.