It also has the possibility of changing how some U.S. companies do business with China, perhaps in unexpected ways.
While China's capitalistic leanings are likely to result in long-term democratic reform, the country today remains a dictatorship and flagrant violator of basic human rights.
Dressing up an authoritarian regime in cheap consumer electronics exports does not change its basic nature.
Google on Tuesday revealed sophisticated Chinese attacks on it and other companies. Google said the attacks were aimed at hacking the e-mail accounts of human rights activists. It said two accounts may have actually been compromised.
Google has not provided the names the 20 other companies that were attacked.
Reuters reports that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with tech industry execs last week and discussed taking a harder line against Chinese Internet censorship. The meeting included representatives from Google, Microsoft, and Twitter, the news agency said.
Companies that do business in China must decide, perhaps on an ongoing basis, what compromises they are willing to make in order to maintain the relationship.
This can be very complex and the wrong choice can have consequences: In 2007, Yahoo execs were castigated as being "moral pygmies" by a U.S. congressman during hearings over Yahoo actions that led to the jailing of a dissident Chinese journalist.
Google's relationship with the Chinese government has been a complex one, though not one reflecting moral pygmy-ism among the company's leadership. And today's action, indeed, shows Google to be quite the opposite.
Yes, Google "sanitizes" search results delivered to users in China, but it has been telling users that the results have been censored. That was pretty gutsy in itself--and a real concession by the Chinese.
"We launched Google.cn in January 2006 in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results," wrote David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer on the company's official blog.
"At the time we made clear that we will carefully monitor conditions in China, including new laws and other restrictions on our services. If we determine that we are unable to achieve the objectives outlined we will not hesitate to reconsider our approach to China.
"These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered--combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web--have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China.
"We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China."
This is an incredibly brave thing for Google to do.
First, it embarrasses the Chinese, perhaps opening Google to the full force of a Chinese cyber attack.
Second, if Google really does leave the country, it will cost the company millions, perhaps billions of dollars and risks having that money go to a less-principled competitor.
Or perhaps this mess can be cleaned-up: There remains the possibility of negotiation, which if it results in uncensored Google search results in China will be a very good thing. If China is serious about improving its human rights record and joining the family of nations, this is a chance to prove its good intentions.
China is a great nation and a great people. The U.S. and other nations have important ties to China that should not be jeopardized lightly. But, there must also be lines that China cannot cross without repercussions.
Google is doing the right thing by drawing such a line on behalf of free people everywhere.