In the latest episode of the ongoing Google-Beijing dispute, Google’s attempt to bypass Chinese censors by sending Chinese users of its search engine to an uncensored Hong Kong-based site seems to have failed.
Within 24 hours of the rerouting, Beijing has clamped down, restricting mainland users’ access to the uncensored content on the Hong Kong site. Mainland Chinese users on Tuesday could not see uncensored Hong Kong content because government computers either disabled searches for objectionable content completely or blocked links to certain results [The New York Times]. Earlier, the Chinese government described Google’s move to redirect users to the Hong Kong site as “totally wrong.”
The clash comes two months after Google and China began a bitter standoff over internet censorship on the mainland. Instead of exiting the country entirely, Google has taken on Beijing by defying its censorship controls and sending mainland users to its Hong Kong site, where censorship rules are more lenient.
While the move seemed provocative, Google’s founders at first seemed to think that this redirection would be acceptable to the Chinese government. “We got reasonable indications that this was O.K.,” Sergey Brin, a Google founder and its president of technology, said. “We can’t be completely confident” [The New York Times]. Google said that while the search operations were being redirected to Hong Kong, it would continue to host its maps and music search service in China. However, it now seems that the company misjudged the Chinese government’s mood.
After Google’s big move yesterday, people visiting Google.cn were immediately rerouted to Google.hk. Within the Hong Kong site, there were links to Google’s search engine in simplified Chinese, most commonly used by mainland Chinese Internet users, as well as links in traditional Chinese, which is commonly used in Hong Kong. The simplified-Chinese service viewable in Hong Kong looked much like Google.cn, with links to products Google only offers in the mainland, such as its free music search service [The Wall Street Journal].
Google’s current gamble is risky. Despite its size and global popularity, in China the search site is second in popularity to local search engine Baidu, whose stock has soared in the aftermath of the dispute. Google also has to consider whether it would be willing to run afoul of the Chinese authorities completely and turn its back on 400 million internet users and potentially billions of dollars in advertising revenue. Finally, analysts hope this tussle between a corporation fighting for its own interests and an authoritarian government doesn’t endanger already strained diplomatic relations between China and the United States.
Governments on both sides chimed in on the latest developments. The White House said it was disappointed that China and Google could not agree on how to do business together, while Beijing rushed to declare that despite the current spat, China still welcomes foreign investors and businesses. Within Google’s China offices, employees said they were confident that the research and development office wasn’t going to be shut down anytime soon. However, they did say they were worried that the Chinese government would block Google.cn entirely, which would keep mainland Internet users from accessing features like Google video, music, and maps which all use that address.
Beijing Internet entrepreneur and author of the technology blog digicha.com, Bill Bishop, called those fears well founded. He said on Tuesday that Google’s withdrawal amounted to “an amazing public slap in the face to the Chinese government.” “The Chinese are very serious about pushing their soft-power agenda,” he said. “Google just put a big hole in that sales pitch, and I think they know that. So the idea that Google can take out its search business and leave everything else, and China will just forgive and forget — that’s very much not how the Chinese government works” [The New York Times].
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