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(LIU JIN)
(LIU JIN)

Analysis

Why Google isn't racing from China Add to ...

When you type in "Tiananmen Square affair 1989," entered in Chinese on google.cn, the search returns a single link - the official Xinhua news agency's dry and bloodless account of the "clearing" of the students camping on the square on June 4 of that year.

That result is followed by a line all too familiar to Google users in China: "According to local laws, regulations and policies, some search results are not shown."

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For all the insinuations and indignation unleashed over the past week, the fact that Google Inc. is still censoring sensitive searches suggests the Internet giant is far from certain that it wants to leave China to others.

It's hardly a surprise. The company's stunning declaration that it may leave China after a sophisticated cyber attack it implicitly blames on Beijing has drawn expressions of support and outrage from around the world, as well as howls of protest from Chinese Internet users worried about losing access to the search engine. A formal protest from the U.S. State Department is expected his week.

But from the foreign business community in China, the whole affair has elicited only an embarrassed silence.

Google was just one of 34 foreign companies targeted in the cyber-assault, and yet it stands alone in its threat to walk away from China and its 380 million Internet users. The others, until now, have largely kept quiet, apparently accepting hack attacks as yet another risk that comes with trying to make money in the lucrative Chinese market. High-profile companies such as Yahoo Inc., Adobe Systems Inc. and Juniper Networks Inc. have acknowledged they were also targeted in the attack. Other firms, such as Dow Chemical Co. and Symantec Corp. have declined to comment on reports that they were also targets.

Only Yahoo has said that it is "aligned with" Google's stand. And even that after-the-fact gesture put the company at odds with its Chinese partner, Alibaba, an online commerce site. A spokesman for Alibaba called Yahoo's statement "reckless, given the lack of facts in evidence."

The business community's instinct to placate Beijing, rather than agitate for change, has grown stronger of late as the rising superpower has entered what one commentator recently dubbed its "Bush-Cheney era" - acting in its own interest and not caring much what the rest of the world thinks about it. In recent months, the Communist Party leadership has ignored international pressure on issues as divergent as the Copenhagen climate talks, where it refused to commit to a firm emissions cap, to the artificially low value of its currency to the Christmas Day sentencing of dissident Liu Xiaobo to 11 years in prison for penning a manifesto calling for more freedoms and democracy in the country.

Beijing's eventual response to Google's accusations - essentially that the company was welcome to stay in China only as long as it continued censoring results - fits the same pattern.

Few in China were surprised by Google's allegations that source code was stolen and the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists accessed illicitly (perhaps with the aid of someone working inside the offices of Google China). The only real shock came from Google's decision to go public about it and threaten to leave.

Old China hands accept that doing business in the country means playing by different rules than those that apply elsewhere. In famously face-conscious Chinese society, quarrels are supposed to be raised and resolved out of the public eye, to spare embarrassment on all sides.

Google's leadership obviously believes that the attacks were too big - and the risks of remaining silent too large - to stay quiet any more. The company that agreed to censor results when it launched Google China in 2005, in the process taking heat from critics who accused the Internet giant of abandoning its "don't be evil" corporate ethos, has suddenly grabbed for the moral high ground.

The allegations of censorship and cyber attacks have embarrassed the Communist government and left the two sides with little room to negotiate. For Google to climb down now and continue censoring results on google.cn would make the search giant look hypocritical not just in China but around the world.

For Beijing, which has long claimed that restricting access to information on the Internet is key to social stability, allowing an uncensored Google to operate is equally unacceptable. "Is Google's exit threat a matter of censorship and human rights?" read the editorial in yesterday's edition of the state-run China Daily newspaper. "If it is, the move should have come much earlier or the Web giant should have never entered the Chinese market in the first place."

While the U.S. State Department looks ready to stand by the Internet giant in its dispute with China, the other 33 foreign firms who were victims of the cyber-attack do not. Some are already looking at ways to jump into the void if Google - which runs the second most popular search engine in the country, well behind China's own Baidu Inc. - carries through on its threat to leave. Microsoft's Steve Ballmer has pointedly said that his company won't be leaving China, where it has high hopes for its new Bing search engine.

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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