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What Google's China decision means

"The story’s not over yet," Google cofounder Sergey Brin told the New York Times in a brief interview after his company redirected Chinese Internet users from Google.cn to a Web address in Hong Kong today. “There was a sense that Hong Kong was the right step."

Maybe this decision was taken with the full or tacit consent of the Chinese Communist Party. If so, nobody told China's State Council Information Office, which issued the following angry  statement on Google's move:

"Foreign companies operating in China must abide by Chinese laws. Google has violated the written promise it made on entering the Chinese market. It is totally wrong in halting (censorship) filtering of its search provider and also making aspersions and accusations towards China about hacking attacks. We firmly oppose politicising commercial issues, and express our dissatisfaction and anger at Google Inc's unreasonable accusations and practices."

China's state news agency, Xinhua, also chimes in to report the results of an online poll showing that most Chinese Internet users "don't care" if Google leaves China. Another Xinhua article says that Google is politicizing itself, and that "one company's ambition to change China's Internet rules and legal system will only prove to be ridiculous." A third article informs us that none of this will affect China's ability to attract foreign businesses.

Rebecca MacKinnon comments:

The Chinese government is reacting in a knee-jerk and counterproductive manner which implies that they think they should have jurisdiction over websites hosted on computer servers physically beyond their borders, and which implies disrespect for the Hong Kong Basic Law to which the CCP made a clear commitment.

(For more on the technical issues, see Andrew Lih's handy primer on the difference between the Chinese and Hong Kong Internets.)

MacKinnon also points to an in-depth interview she did with Google senior vice president David Drummond, who provides some interesting background on the company's views of China. His remarks directly contradicts the spin coming from the Chinese government, which claims it is steadily opening the Internet, but at a pace of its on choosing. "What’s clear is that the environment in which we were operating in terms of an open internet was not improving in China," Drummond said.

There are a couple ways this thing could go now. China could block the Hong Kong site altogether, which so far it doesn't appear to be doing. Or it could leave it be and block results on a case-by-case basis.

A more troubling possibility is that China uses this incident to crack down on Hong Kong's freedoms. So far, fears that Beijing would trample all over the rights Hong Kong residents had enjoyed before the 1997 handover proved largely unfounded. But that was then. What's to stop China from deciding that it won't honor its agreements? You'd have to think some in Hong Kong are worrying about the possibility now.

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One Google, One World; One China, No Google

This just in from the Google corporate blog -- the much anticipated announcement on Google's plans for operating in China. Users in mainland China who visit Google.cn are now being redirected to Google.com.hk, which is housed on servers in Hong Kong. The search results on this site will not be censored: 

Figuring out how to make good on our promise to stop censoring search on Google.cn has been hard. We want as many people in the world as possible to have access to our services, including users in mainland China, yet the Chinese government has been crystal clear throughout our discussions that self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement...
Users visiting Google.cn 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 ...
We believe this new approach of providing uncensored search in simplified Chinese from Google.com.hk is a sensible solution to the challenges we've faced—it's entirely legal and will meaningfully increase access to information for people in China.

 

This seems like a clever strategy. Yet, I'm told by knowledegable tech gurus that what's expected to happen next is that China will lean on Internet-service providers within China to block access to Google.com.hk.

The headline going around the Twitterverse is: "One Google, One World; One China, No Google." In other words, the interpretation is that Google is bowing out of at least the search-engine business in China, though R & D and other operations may remain. 

Gotta hand one thing to Google: Not many companies (or governments) can control leaks so well that most of the world learns the news simultaneously through a corporate  web site.

It's also telling of Google's canny (and confusing) packaging that the Wall Street Journal leads with the relatively sunny headline "Google Stops Censoring Results in China," while the New York Times gets to the point with "Google Shuts China Site in Dispute Over Censorship."

AFP/GETTY IMAGES