Beijing, China – Google has finally made its move, shifting searches from China to Hong Kong more than two months after threatening to quit China over hacking and censorship. But the big questions remain unanswered, in particular Beijing’s next move and how the internet giant’s shift will affect access to information for the world’s biggest net population.
In the hours after Google began redirecting mainland Chinese users to its uncensored search engine in Hong Kong, some impact was evident. The Chinese government’s own heavy-handed censorship technique replaced Google’s somewhat softer version: rather than displaying search results that were labeled as censored, searches from China for very sensitive terms like “Falun Gong” turned up nothing at all.
Some free-speech advocates applauded Google’s move.
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“This is a crucial moment for freedom of expression in China, and the onus is now on other major technology companies to take a firm stand against censorship,” said Arvind Ganesan, business and human rights director at Human Rights Watch.
Others were critical, saying the company’s decision to shift would hurt Chinese internet users, while a third camp said Google had reached a workable compromise without being too openly hostile.
“In this case, I think Google is much more irresponsible than the government,” said Fang Xingdong, a Chinese blogging pioneer. “Google should consider the users’ perspective. The benefit of internet users is the most important and everything else is secondary.”
China has offered limited official reaction thus far, mainly via the official Xinhua news agency. Xinhua posted comments from an unnamed official from the State Council Information Office, saying Google was in the wrong.
“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,” the official continued. “We’re uncompromisingly opposed to the politicization of commercial issues, and express our discontent and indignation to Google for its unreasonable accusations and conducts.”
Kaiser Kuo, a Beijing-based technology writer, said what happens next is important. If China’s official reaction is “kept to the level of a few indignant editorials upbraiding Google for failing to live up to its written promises and goes no further, then I think we can assume that Google.com will remain unblocked.”
“Clearly, the best-case outcome would be one in which Beijing accepts this new status quo,” said Kuo. “Obviously they’re not going to announce that this is their plan. They’ll just declare victory and let things be, not blocking Google.com.hk and not drumming Google out of China entirely.”
But, Kuo said, if the situation worsens, “Beijing could still very well make things more difficult – blocking, torpedoing Google business with mobile carriers and handset makers, et cetera.”
Google is now offering an updated report on which of its services are blocked or censored in China.
Google’s big move came at a dicey time, underscoring growing concerns about Chinese hostility toward foreign businesses. A day earlier, the American Chamber of Commerce in China released a survey of U.S. companies that showed 62 percent of those surveyed felt increasingly unwelcome in China. The survey focused on new rules that might give homegrown companies preference in government contracts, but said the overall climate for U.S. businesses might be souring.
In addition, Monday also opened the trial of four executives from Australian mining giant Rio Tinto. The four, one of whom is an Australian citizen, were charged with bribery and corporate espionage last summer and have now pleaded guilty to some of the offenses.
China’s Foreign Ministry has described both as individual cases and not part of a growing anti-foreign business trend. But the AmCham survey showed that U.S. businesses are feeling some heat and the way forward could be dicey.