As Google began redirecting tens of millions of Chinese users on Tuesday to its uncensored Web site in Hong Kong, the company’s remaining mainland operations came under pressure from its Chinese partners and from the government itself.
The Chinese government moved on Tuesday to block access of mainland users to the Hong Kong site, the use of which Google had hoped would allow it to keep its pledge to end censorship while retaining a share of China’s fast-growing internet search market.
But mainland Chinese users on Tuesday could not see the uncensored Hong Kong content because government computers either blocked the content or filtered links to searches for objectionable content.
Beijing officials were clearly angered by Google’s decision, which focused global attention on its censorship policies, and there were signs of possible escalation in the dispute.
China’s biggest cellular communications company, China Mobile, was expected to cancel a deal that had placed Google’s search engine on its mobile Internet home page, used by millions of people daily. In interviews, business executives close to industry officials said the company was planning to scrap the deal under government pressure despite the fact that it has yet to find are placement.
Similarly, China’s second-largest mobile company, China Unicom, was said by analysts and others to have delayed or killed the imminent start of a cellphone based on Google’s Android platform.
Both technology analysts and the businessmen, who demanded anonymity for fear of retaliation, said that Google might also face problems in keeping its advertising-sales force, which is crucial to the success of its Chinese-language service.
Several held out the prospect that the government could shut down the company’s Chinese search service entirely by blocking access to Google’s mainland address, google.cn, or to its Hong Kong Web site. As of Tuesday, users who go to google.cn are automatically being sent to the Hong Kong address, google.com.hk.
“It’s going to boil down to whether authorities feel it is acceptable for users to be redirected to that site without having to figure it out themselves,” said Mark Natkin, managing director of Marbridge Consulting, a Beijing-based technology research firm.
At the same time, Mr. Natkin said that the government might still be wary of agitating loyal Google users in China, who tend to be highly educated and vocal. “To block Google entirely is not necessarily a desirable outcome for the government,” he said.
In northern Beijing on Tuesday, a few Chinese passers-by laid flowers or chocolates on the large metal “Google” sign outside Google’s office building, The Associated Press reported.
The two sides had been at loggerheads since early January, when Google said it would end the voluntary censorship of its China-based search service in response to attacks by China-based hackers on its e-mail service and its corporate database. Two months of sporadic talks failed to bridge the divide between Google and the Chinese government, which insists that its citizens’ access to the Internet be stripped of offensive and some politically sensitive material.
The government denounced Google on Tuesday, calling its decision “totally wrong,” and the state-run press accused Google of politicizing the Internet by trying to foist Western content on Chinese users.
One Western official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that China now speaks of Internet freedom in the context of one of its “core interests” — issues of sovereignty on which Beijing will brook no intervention. The most commonly cited core issues are Taiwan and Tibet, the official said, so the addition of Internet freedom is an indication that the issue has taken on nationalistic overtones.
Google said in a blog posting Tuesday that Chinese officials had never wavered in negotiations from their insistence that Google censor its search results.
The Beijing business magazine Caijing reported last week that Google had employed Brent Scowcroft, President George H.W. Bush’s national security adviser, to ask the Chinese for direct talks in January. Chinese officials said on Tuesday that the two sides held two face-to-face meetings in January and February, and Caijing had reported that the second meeting went poorly.
One Chinese businessman said in an interview on Monday that talks “broke down completely” at the end.
Google executives had decided by Monday evening to keep the firm’s business operations on mainland China intact, a Western official briefed on the discussions said Tuesday. Google’s decision to redirect Chinese search requests to Hong Kong — rather than scrap the Chinese service entirely — apparently was made only at the last minute, despite exhaustive reviews, the official said.
Google China employees were still going to work at the headquarters in Beijing on Tuesday. Some engineers in the research and development department appeared confident that the department would not be shut down anytime soon, said one Google employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Within the offices, though, employees were wondering whether the Chinese government would make a move to block Google.cn or other Google products.
A Beijing Internet entrepreneur and author of the technology blog digicha.com, Bill Bishop, called those fears well founded. He said on Tuesday that Google’s withdrawal amounted to “an amazing public slap in the face to the Chinese government.”
“The Chinese are very serious about pushing their soft-power agenda,” he said. “Google just put a big hole in that sales pitch, and I think they know that. So the idea that Google can take out its search business and leave everything else, and China will just forgive and forget — that’s very much not how the Chinese government works.”
A second expert, the technology consultant and author of the Silicon Hutong blog David Wolf, said he was more optimistic that the government would continue to allow Google to operate its non-search businesses on the mainland.
Even were Google’s Chinese search business to vanish, he said, the company would still have valuable interests inside China. Its growing research-and-development center allows it to tap talent that cannot easily travel to the United States, he said. And Google’s advertising business is used not just to place Chinese ads on Google’s Chinese service, but to market Chinese companies worldwide.
“Over time, that’s going to grow, not shrink,” he said, adding that Google’s advertising also serves the government well because it promotes Chinese business globally.
If the license expires as expected, features currently still running on Google’s “.cn” address, including video, music and maps, must be displaced as well, said Dan Brody, who was Google’s first hire in China in 2005 and now heads the Koolanoo Group, a Beijing-based Internet media investment firm.
That move, in turn, will affect Google’s commitments to partners from whom it licenses content for mainland users. “So they’ve still got a whole mess of legal and technical issues to work out,” he said.