- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Google stopped censoring its Chinese-language search engine on Monday and relocated its Web-searching operations to Hong Kong.

But the search giant was reluctant to abandon mainland China altogether and said it plans to maintain other facilities there, including engineering and sales offices.

“Earlier today we stopped censoring our search services,” Google chief legal officer David Drummond announced in a blog post.

Mr. Drummond said users visiting Google.cn, the mainland search engine, “are now being redirected to Google.com.hk, where we are offering uncensored search in simplified Chinese, specifically designed for users in mainland China and delivered via our servers in Hong Kong.”

The move was seen as Google’s attempt to compromise, while not abandoning altogether its crucial foothold in the world’s most populous country with nearly 400 million Internet users.

“It’s an effort to split the baby,” said James Lewis, a scholar on China’s information technology industries at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Google has offered the Chinese a face-saving way to accept the fact that Google will no longer be filtering Chinese searches,” Mr. Lewis said, adding that it is also “in China’s interest to show that Hong Kong is different” from the mainland.

Google threatened Jan. 12 to pull out of China entirely unless the government allowed it to stop censoring its search results — a demand China has steadfastly refused.

Google, which controlled about 30 percent of China’s search-engine market, issued the threat after revealing that it had been the victim of “highly sophisticated” cyber attacks originating from China. Those attacks resulted in “the theft of intellectual property” and were also aimed at the e-mail accounts of Chinese human-rights activists, Google charged.

China did not back down, repeatedly demanding that Google adhere to its rules and regulations. In commentaries and editorials appearing in state-controlled media, Chinese authorities have been berating and even mocking Google in recent days.

A China Daily editorial on Monday, for example, declared, “Business is business. But when it involves political tricks, business will come to an end soon.” If it stopped censoring search results, Google would be “unfriendly and irresponsible” and would have to bear the consequences, China warned last week.

China’s immediate reaction Tuesday was critical, accusing Google via the official Xinhua News Agency of violating a “written promise” and calling the company’s move “totally wrong.”

Now Google has stopped censoring, albeit from Hong Kong. The former British colony is under Beijing’s sovereignty but as a “special administrative region” run on the principle of “one country, two systems,” with Hong Kong enjoying much freer economical and political institutions.

Since China’s 1997 acquisition of Hong Kong, Western nations watch threats to freedom there much more closely than in the Chinese mainland. Still, China’s communist authorities could react by preventing mainland Chinese from connecting to Google’s Hong Kong-based search engine.

China might also react by denying Google the fruits of the highly-prized Chinese market in potentially lucrative areas where Google wants to remain, such as mobile-phone technology, and research and development.

The move also has pulled in U.S. political authorities, with the White House saying Monday that Google had notified it in advance of its impending move.

Mike Hammer, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said the U.S. was “disappointed that Google and the Chinese government were unable to reach an agreement that would allow Google to continue operating its search services in China on its google.cn Web site.”

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