When Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) filed to go public, co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin wrote a letter to shareholders. Perhaps one of the most interesting statements it made: "Don't be evil. We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served -- as shareholders and in all other ways -- by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short-term gains." Perhaps the founders should have added a footnote: When it comes to China, the "don't be evil" mantra only goes so far.

This week, Google launched its Chinese search engine, and the company agreed to be, well, what some might regard as evil, by allowing the Chinese government to censor its search results. Even Google said this was regrettable. "While removing search results is inconsistent with Google's mission," the company's senior policy counsel said, "providing no information (or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts to no information) is more inconsistent with our mission."

Google's Chinese search engine will make some cosmetic attempts to be less evil, at least by American standards. For example, the search engine will indicate to users that certain types of materials have been censored.

Is this still evil? By American conceptions of freedom of information, maybe. But the question truly depends on how strongly Google views itself as an agent of social change, as opposed to a business. What exactly does "don't be evil" portend for the company in the grander scope of its operations? The China situation highlights how tricky it can be to make a broad statement like "don't be evil" a core corporate value, especially when Google must apply that principle to real-world situations.

If you ask me, Google's reason for caving to Chinese censorship is simple: There's a ton of money to be made from the Chinese search market. Currently, China has the second-highest Internet population, and it'll doubtlessly surpass the United States in a few more years. To keep fueling growth, Google needs to be dominant in China, and with fierce competition from Baidu (NASDAQ:BIDU), Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO), and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), that's hardly easy. For Google, not being evil seems to be an increasingly relative principle.

Fool contributor Tom Taulli does not own shares mentioned in this article. Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. The Fool has a disclosure policy.