Value judgments aside, Google is meddling. Its decision to redirect its filtered Chinese search engine to Hong Kong (where consumers now get an unblocked Google.com.hk) is a public gesture of uninhibited muscle-flexing -- and even, one could argue, of moral leadership. For a company whose famous mantra is "Don't be evil," it's a dramatic step that few companies have the clout or, yes, courage to do. In fact, Google's size and influence (media and economic) are such that it has transcended the lowly frame of a mere corporation and have turned it into a CorporNation
A CorporNation's vast global influence enables it to function simultaneously in two realms: a for-profit company, and as a force that can shape the geopolitical landscape. Google isn't the only CorporNation; Goldman Sachs is clearly in that category -- as the Greek political crisis has revealed, the company has been a partner in deceit with governments that used financial alchemy to disguise deficits as off-balance sheet baubles. Wal-Mart functioned as a CorporNation during Katrina.
CorporNations aren't new. Indeed, they are as old as capitalism, going back to the Dutch East India Company, which was chartered in 1602, became the world' s first global company and transformed Holland into a colonial power as it dominated the East. Its reach was astounding:
"Between 1602 and 1796 they sent almost a million Europeans to work in the Asia trade on 4,785 ships, and netted for their efforts more than 2.5 million tons of Asian trade goods."
In more recent history, CorporNations like United Fruit ended up having extraordinary influence on local governments in Latin America, using their money and power to effectively run the show, controlling transportation, taxation and land use policies. Hence the term "banana republic."
China doesn't want to become a "Search Republic" or a Google subsidiary. Its years of occupation by colonial powers are very much part of China's present day psychic history. So naturally, they are refusing to crumble, to bow to Google's visible display of pressure, this global dressing-down which must make them nuts.
It's well-acknowledged that China has been both an economic miracle and a free-speech compromise, a delicate political and economic dance that is controlled by the master string-pullers in Beijing. Is this a problem for the Chinese? I'd warrant that Google cares more about filtered words like "Falun Gong" and "Tibet" than the average Chinese citizen does, given that millions of the latter are racing towards middle class status and are more interested in searching for a spiffy little Geely hatchback than for a couple of provocative terms on the Internet.
Of course, it is possible that Google is using this as an opportunity for global grandstanding -- a way to build deep depositories of good will and deflect attention from some of their more controversial activities, whether it be the digitization of millions of books, privacy issues, the intrusiveness of their street mapping, or other products bubbling in their Google Labs.
But moral or tactical or some New Age-y hybrid of both, Google is able to speak more forcefully -- and without diplomatic wobble -- than the United States government itself. After all, the Obama administration is playing a complex chess game, a push-pull minuet that needs to balance trade and monetary issues -- including the valuation of the yuan -- environmental concerns, defense policy, Iran, Korea and a host of other hot potatoes.
Compared to this required diplomatic nuancing, the full-throated voice of a CorporNation sounds fresh and fearless. It's an ironic twist. The United States has become a holding company -- owning big chunks of banks and car companies, naming board members -- while Google is speaking out about human rights and censorship. And Google doesn't really worry about the political consequences of destabilizing the Chinese political system -- after all, it's not a real government in the end.
What Google is, though, is the end-point of a gradual progression in which brands have grown large in the culture, standing for increasingly meaningful issues, belief systems that stretch well beyond their core functional benefit. We've gone from Coke=Refreshment, to McDonald's=Family, to Nike=Empowerment, to Google=The Bill of Rights.
Only a true CorporNation can be a stand-in for government. And sometimes, a stand-out.
Follow Adam Hanft on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hanft