The challenge thrown down by Google seems unequivocal: Either Beijing accepts uncensored information on Google.cn or the Internet giant will shut down its operations in China.
Last week's ultimatum and yesterday's delayed launch of Google smart phones in China appear to have launched a battle of the titans: the world's most powerful Internet company and the world's rising economic superpower, a 21st-century fight to the death between King Kong and Godzilla. Moreover, Google's motto, "Don't be evil," cast the struggle in a moral light, good versus bad, the forces of light against the forces of darkness.
Put in those terms, the outcome is predetermined. To the Chinese Communist Party, censorship is vital to its continued monopoly on power. Hence, Google will have to end its operations in China.
But that's not necessarily the case. Google, it appears, is awaiting the outcome of talks with the Chinese government. But what is there to negotiate? The fact that Google is seeking talks, however, is revealing.
After all, in Google's Jan. 12 statement, the company made it clear that what triggered its threat to quit China was not the censorship it had been practising ever since it launched Google.cn in 2006 but rather cyberattacks "on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google."
Google apparently tried to rally other companies that had been subjected to such cyberattacks but was unsuccessful. Yahoo, however, issued a statement saying it "stands aligned" with Google in condemning Chinese cyberattacks. For that, it was resoundingly criticized by its Chinese partner, the Alibaba Group, for being "reckless given the lack of facts in evidence."
It is difficult to trace the source of Internet attacks and, while Google may have strong suspicions, it apparently does not have incontrovertible evidence that the Chinese government is responsible.
China has been suspected as the source of many cyberattacks, not only in the U.S. but in Europe and elsewhere. India's national security adviser said his office and other Indian government departments were also targeted on Dec. 15, the same day Google was targeted.
An FBI report, recently leaked, alleged that China has 30,000 military cyberspies and more than 150,000 private-sector computer experts. The report, cited in The Daily Beast, likened the potential destructive power of cyberattacks to weapons of mass destruction. The article said the mission of Chinese cyberspies "is to steal American military and technological secrets and cause mischief in government and financial services."
China has never acknowledged taking part in cyberattacks. In fact, after Google made its allegations, the Foreign Ministry responded: "Chinese laws prohibit any form of cyberattacks, including hacking."
The Alibaba Group, no doubt, is extremely aware of the sensitivities of the Chinese government. The fact that it publicly distanced itself from Yahoo, its business partner, suggests China is not about to compromise in any negotiations with Google.
Moreover, the Google affair is turning into an issue in Sino-American relations. Washington has already called on Beijing for an explanation, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying Google's allegations raise "very serious concerns."
But China has made clear it will not back down. Since the Communist Party will not allow the lifting of censorship and the Chinese government will not admit to launching cyberattacks on Google or anyone else, even if China agrees to hold negotiations with the Internet company, deadlock is the most likely outcome.
Google's days in China, it appears, are numbered. This will result in a loss of earnings for the company, a loss of face for the Chinese government and a narrowing of information horizons for the Chinese people.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer.