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US-CHINA: Google Puts Ball in Beijing’s Court

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Mar 24 2010 (IPS) - Internet users in China are reporting varying degrees of censorship on Google search results after the company moved its Chinese operation out of mainland China.

Google announced it would redirect traffic from the service to Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China that enjoys unfiltered access to the internet, on Monday.

The decision, which was announced on the Google corporate blog, read, “Users visiting are now being redirected to, where we are offering uncensored search in simplified Chinese, specifically designed for users in mainland China and delivered via our servers in Hong Kong. Users in Hong Kong will continue to receive their existing uncensored, traditional Chinese service, also from”

In January, the company charged that the Google email accounts of a number of journalists, Chinese human rights advocates, and diplomats had been accessed by Chinese hackers and that, in response, Google would cease its cooperation with Chinese authorities in censoring its search engine results in China.

Rumours have swirled that Google was the victim of far more extensive cyber-espionage – either tacitly approved of or actively assisted by Chinese government-funded research institutions – which led Google to cease its cooperation with Beijing.

Many had hoped that Google would reach an agreement with authorities in Beijing but the firm’s announcement on Monday, and the subsequent censorship of Google search results, indicates that negotiations were unsuccessful.

Other than the reports of censorship of Google search results, which began on Tuesday, Beijing has been tight-lipped on how it will respond to Google’s decision to route its Chinese-based users to servers in Hong Kong.

Beijing issued its own statement shortly after Google made the announcement.

“This is totally wrong. We’re uncompromisingly opposed to the politicisation of commercial issues, and express our discontent and indignation to Google for its unreasonable accusations and conduct,” an official at the Internet Bureau of the State Council Information Office (SCIO) said in a statement to the state-controlled Xinhua News Agency on Tuesday.

The White House, which is currently under pressure from Congress to take a harder line on China’s refusal to readjust its currency, strove to downplay the significance of Google’s announcement.

“I think that you heard the president enunciate quite clearly in China a policy and a belief that open government and the ability to communicate among people without the censorship of government is tremendously important,” said White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs at a press briefing on Monday.

“So it may be, as there are in some issues, that we in a mature diplomatic relationship have disagreements,” Gibbs continued.

China experts in the U.S. have been left waiting to see if China will expand its censorship of Google search results or even go as far as blocking access to Google’s Hong Kong servers in mainland China.

“The interpretation at this point has to be that the Chinese government is trying to figure out how to respond,” Christina Larson, an expert on Chinese civil society and a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, told IPS.

“Google’s decision to redirect users to and then leaving it for the Chinese government to decide whether to block that site puts the ball in China’s court and that is a kind of provocation,” said Larson.

Google’s January announcement that it would cease cooperation with Beijing to censor search results was backed up by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s address on internet freedom, in which she declared, “Those who disrupt the free flow of information in our society or any other pose a threat to our economy, our government and our civil society.”

The spat over internet freedom, which drew equally strong statements from Beijing, added to what has been a rough period in Sino-U.S. relations.

In September, U.S. President Barack Obama authorised a 35-percent emergency tariff on Chinese tyre imports in order to curb a “surge” of Chinese tyres which, according to U.S. trade unions, have cost 7,000 U.S. factory workers their jobs.

Beijing responded quickly to condemn the U.S. tariffs and threatened to levy its own tariffs against U.S. products.

In February, the Beijing-Washington relationship hit another rough patch when China threatened to impose sanctions on U.S. companies participating in an upcoming 6.4-billion-dollar arms deal with Taiwan.

As the global economic crisis stressed both the Chinese and the U.S. economies, China has sought to shift the investments from its balance of payments surplus away from U.S. dollars and into equities and commodities, while Obama has been under pressure to address the growing trade deficit with China and apply more pressure to China to revalue its currency.

In Tuesday’s press briefing, State Department spokesperson Philip J. Crowley emphasised that Google’s decision to pull out of China was “a business decision by Google” and that the State Department played no role in Google’s decision.

“Intellectual property concerns have been an ongoing topic of discussion and concern in our relationship with China. We have expressed those views on a number of occasions. Ultimately, individual businesses will make judgments as to the investment opportunity in China,” said Crowley.

Crowley concluded, “We value the economic relationship between the United States and China. Our trade has grown exponentially over the past 20, 25 years.”

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