in the rest of the world, a Google-free phone isn’t competitive
I disagree. I bought my Android phone despite Google, not because of it. I don't trust it; won't log into anything vaguely important with it and if you can't get a toy from F-Droid then I can't have it. It's limiting, sure, but if you want a cheap-as-chips pocket computer then Android is the only way to go, really.
Meanwhile it works fine as a bookreader/camera/music player. I'd really like to be able to manage my online empire with a portable device; but there's no way of doing that without some bastard peering over your shoulder, it seems.