Last weekend, many Chinese netizens noticed that they are able to get access to Google Maps, one of the many Google services that have been blocked in China for eight years. Now, both Google Maps and Google Translate, according to Chinese netizens, are accessible in China. Immediately, the information that Google is coming back to China was widely spread on China’s social media.
Yet the reality is more complicated: in an extremely low-profile way, Google did relaunch Google Maps — both the web version and the mobile version — for Chinese netizens, but the Chinese Google Maps, different from that in the rest of the world, is a special version only for users in China.
According to Nikkei, when Chinese users attempt to use the new Google Maps’ navigation features, they will be transferred automatically to an app from AutoNavi, a mapping company owned by Chinese internet giant Alibaba Group Holding.
Since January 2016, China has imposed strict rules on the collection and use of map data in the name of safeguarding national sovereignty and geographic information security.
China demanded that a provider of geographic information should “possess proper qualifications, house servers storing geographic data within Chinese territory, and develop measures to ensure data security.”
Having withdrawn from the Chinese market in 2010 due to disagreement with Beijing’s censorship policies, Google possesses neither enough mapping data nor “proper qualifications” now. Thus, the cooperation with Alibaba, which has long behaved well under the Chinese government’s restrictions, seems to be a wise step for Google to test the water.
In recent months, Google has repeatedly shown signs of preparing for its return to the Chinese market.
In December 2017, Google announced that it would open its first artificial intelligence (AI) research center in Beijing. The company has leased a 6,000-square meter office with space for more than 300 workers in Beijing. The center will be headed by Fei-Fei Li, chief scientist of AI and machine learning at Google Cloud, and Jia Li, head of research and development at Google Cloud AI.
“I believe AI and its benefits have no borders. Whether a breakthrough occurs in Silicon Valley, Beijing or anywhere else, it has the potential to make everyone’s life better. As an AI first company, this is an important part of our collective mission. And we want to work with the best AI talent, wherever that talent is, to achieve it,” Fei-Fei Li wrote in a blog post announcing plans for the China lab.
“Besides publishing its own work, the Google AI China Center will also support the AI research community by funding and sponsoring AI conferences and workshops, and working closely with the vibrant Chinese AI research community,” Li added.
In addition, in early December 2017, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai, together with Apple’s Tim Cook, made their first appearance at China’s World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, a controversial event organized by the Cyberspace Administration of China, the top regulator of China’s internet.
According to the South China Morning Post, Pichai said in a panel discussion of the conference that “a lot of work Google does is to help Chinese companies. Many small and medium-sized businesses in China take advantage of Google to get their products to many other countries outside of China.”