BEIJING // The dispute between Google and the Chinese government took a new turn yesterday when the internet search engine effectively closed its mainland site by redirecting users to its Hong Kong page. Observers have warned the wrangle could yet worsen until the world's most popular search engine is blocked to internet users in the world's most populous nation.
Google has stopped censoring its own search results as it warned it would in January, but mainland users of the uncensored google.com.hk are still subject to the "great firewall", the filtering of sensitive words and pictures imposed by Beijing. The US search engine this year threatened to pull out of China amid claims that Gmail accounts of human rights activists had been attacked by hackers on the mainland.
The news agency Xinhua yesterday quoted a government official as saying Google had "violated its written promise" by no longer censoring. Google was also accused of "blaming China in insinuation for alleged hacker attacks". "We're uncompromisingly opposed to the politicisation of commercial issues and express our discontent and indignation to Google for its unreasonable accusations and conducts," the official said.
Qin Gang, a spokesman for the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs, said relations between the US and China did not have to suffer. "I don't see it influencing Sino-US relations unless some people want to politicise it," Mr Qin said. When Google launched Google.cn in January 2006, it was accused of hypocrisy by Reporters Without Borders for agreeing to censor. Google plans to continue sales and research and development in China, but some analysts believe the company's advertising revenues on the mainland could be hit. And Google has said the government could restrict mainland use of its website.
Jiao Jie, an internet and telecommunications analyst at BDA (China), said Beijing had shown it was not scared of taking on big US online corporations, as it already blocked sites such as YouTube and Facebook. "There will maybe be people in Hong Kong who will be able to use it, but in mainland China it might be very difficult to access," Ms Jiao said. "It's very difficult to say [what will happen] because Google is still a very big website. It's not dominant [in China], but a lot of people know it."
Peter Lu, the managing partner of China IntelliConsulting Corporation, a company based in Beijing that specialises in research on the search-engine market, said authorities were unlikely to take further action. Mr Lu said that if Google continued to direct people to its Hong Kong website, the situation would be "very safe" for the Chinese government because of the great firewall. That firewall blocks web pages on a range of sensitive subjects, including those relating to the Tiananmen Square incidents of 1989, Tibet human rights and other issues.
China is also said to have hundreds of people monitoring online activity, especially chatroom discussions. "If Google can keep a low profile and doesn't irritate the Chinese government any further, the issue will be solved," Mr Lu said. "Google will stick to its principle and the Chinese government will have saved face." Google holds second place in the Chinese search engine market, with a 35.6 per cent market share in the final quarter of last year, while its main rival, Baidu, had 58.4 per cent.
Mr Lu said Google's decision in China would affect the development of the internet in the country. "I don't want Google to leave China," he said. "Many Chinese search users use Google frequently. "It holds business ethics that should be an example for many Chinese businesses and it has a very innovative spirit. If it stays in China it should be very helpful to China's international innovation and technological advancement."