Google Inc. has stopped censoring its services in China by rerouting users through Hong Kong, but the company acknowledged the open access probably won't last long and could prompt retaliation from Chinese authorities.
Indeed, Google's move quickly received sharp criticism from the Chinese government on Monday.
"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," an unnamed manager of the Internet bureau in the State Council Information Office told the government-controlled Xinhua news agency.
"This is totally wrong. We're uncompromisingly opposed to the politicization of commercial issues, and express our discontent and indignation to Google for its unreasonable accusations and conducts."
Google tried to strike a careful balance Monday in its two-month battle with Chinese officials over access to the Internet and allegations Chinese hackers have monitored G-mail accounts belonging to dozens of human rights groups.
The company said it will redirect users in China to Google's Chinese-language service based in Hong Kong, giving them unfiltered access to the Internet. At the same time, Google said it was not pulling out of China and planned to continue research and development work in the country and maintain a sales office. It also plans to keep its mapping and music services on Google.cn.
"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," David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer, said on a company blog. "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."
Mr. Drummond added: "We very much hope that the Chinese government respects our decision, though we are well aware that it could at any time block access to our services."
It's not clear yet if the government will block access, but Chinese officials have been critical of Google for weeks and said the company has not provided clear evidence to back up the hacking allegations.
"On entering the Chinese market four years ago, Google clearly stated that it would respect Chinese law," a Xinhua weekend editorial said. Even if Google does pull out of the country "what would change is not China but Google itself."
Investors also appeared to take a wait-and-see attitude. Google's shares were off only slightly Monday, closing down $2.50 (U.S.) at $557.50 on the Nasdaq exchange.
Google has not been a major player in China since launching Google.cn in January, 2006. The company ranks a distant second to Baidu Inc. in terms of search and China only accounts for an estimated $600-million out of Google's $24-billion in annual revenue. But several analysts said yesterday's move will carry long-term consequences for the company, especially given that China has more than 300 million Internet users and the figure is growing.
"Over the long term, I think Google has little choice but to play ball with China in some way, shape or form," said Kevin Restivo, a Toronto-based analyst with research firm IDC. "It's just far too large a market for Google not to be there over the long term."
Mr. Restivo noted that Google's Android operating system would still be offered in China by partners such as Dell Inc. even if it leaves the country. "The benefits to the company though are negligible if consumers aren't able to access the company's Web properties from the mobiles," he said.
Other analysts have said China might be willing to strike a compromise with Google in order to deflect concerns about a worsening environment for foreign investors. However, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang indicated last week that Google's possible withdrawal from the country was "only an individual business act, which could not affect China's investment environment or change the reality that most of the enterprises, American companies included, have been doing well and making profits in China."
Human rights group's hailed Google's decision, saying the company has struck the right balance.
"Google is really thinking outside of the box," said Sharon Hom, executive director of New York-based Human Rights in China. She said Google was throwing the ball in the court of Beijing, which promised to respect freedoms in Hong Kong when it regained the territory in 1997. "They are technically staying in China but stopping censorship."
With a report from AFP