China vs. Google: The Chess Game Continues…

In the chess game between Beijing and Google, Google has redirected all search traffic from mainland China to Google’s Hong Kong site, google.com.hk rather than pulling out of China. Although Hong Kong, a former British colony, was handed over to Beijing in 1997, the region operates with some autonomy and has a free press.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs weighed in on Tuesday, saying Google’s moves won’t impact Sino-U.S. relations – despite a raft of editorials in state media over the weekend chastising Google and accusing the company of having close ties to the Obama administration.

“The Google incident is just an individual action taken by one company – I can’t see its impact on Sino-U.S. relations unless someone wants to politicize it,” said Qin Gang, ministry spokesperson. “I cannot see its impact on China’s international image unless someone wants to make an issue of it,” Qin added. “It is not China that has undermined its image but rather it is the Google company itself.” (CNN)

China state media said Google’s decision to quit censoring its China Web site “violated its written promise” and was “totally wrong.” (CNN)

“We very much hope that the Chinese government respects our decision, though we are well aware that it could at any time block access to our services,” David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, wrote in a statement posted on the company’s official blog.

As of 9:30 p.m. ET, Google users in China could still access Google.cn but results on politically sensitive search teams, such as “Tiananmen Square massacre” or the outlawed religious group “Falun Gong,” were blocked when searched from Beijing – suggesting that although Google is no longer self censoring, China state sensors of “the Great Firewall” may be.

A similar search in Hong Kong, however, successfully loads searches for controversial terms. Google indicated yesterday in a blog post that using the Hong Kong site could be patchy or slow due to so much traffic being redirected to its servers there.

Google made an announcement on its Web site at 3:03 a.m. local Beijing time (3:03 p.m. ET). China Daily, a state-run media organization, responded with a story four hours later quoting an unnamed official from the Internet bureau under the State Council Information Office.

“Google has violated its written promise it made when entering the Chinese market by stopping filtering its searching service and blaming China in insinuation for alleged hacker attacks,” said the official. “This is totally wrong. We’re uncompromisingly opposed to the politicization of commercial issues, and express our discontent and indignation to Google for its unreasonable accusations and conducts,” the official added. (CNN)

Chen Yafei, a Chinese informant technology specialist, told Reuters that Google should have accepted Chinese regulation if it wanted to operate in the country. “Any company entering China should abide by Chinese laws,” he said. “Chinese Internet users will have no regrets if Google withdraws.” (BBC)

Edward U, chief executive of Analysys International, a Beijing-based research firm specializing in technology issues, said he did not believe Google’s rerouting was sustainable. “The thing that makes the government unhappy is this kind of gesture,” he said. “They may set up barriers against Google.” (BBC)

Instead of shuttering its operations in China, Google plans to continue operating there. “We intend to continue R&D work in China and also maintain a sales presence there, though the size of the sales team will obviously be partially dependent on the ability of mainland Chinese users to access Google.com.hk,” wrote Drummond of Google. (CNN)

The company said it would maintain a research and development and sales presence in China, where about 700 of its 20,000 employees are based.

The company on Monday also launched a dashboard page, which it promises to update regularly each day, that will show which Google services are available in China. According to the page, YouTube, Google Sites and Google’s Blogger apps were blocked, with some others partially blocked, such as Picasa.

The government wouldn’t comment whether Google’s actions were legal or if the government planned further action.

In Beijing, some passers-by laid flowers outside Google’s offices to thank the company for standing up for its principles.

International human rights groups praised Google’s move, with the New York-based Human Rights in China saying Google had put the ball in Beijing’s court – China promised to respect freedoms in Hong Kong when it regained the territory in 1997.

Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the CPJ hoped it would “ramp up pressure on the Chinese government to allow its citizens to access the news and information they need.” (BBC)

A Paris-based rights group, Reporters Without Borders, called Google’s decision a bold move which other Internet companies should follow. Foreign Internet companies have to comply with China’s stringent censorship rules before being allowed to operate in the country.

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