Is Google coming to an end in China ?

Though no one seems to know how the Google vs. China saga will unfold, all signs indicate Google’s exit is imminent. That could be bad news for internet freedom efforts in the country, but great news for the other internet companies –much- less willing to come head to head with the authorities. 

After months of debating – and grandstanding-, Google has come to a decision on how to move forward in China. When we signed on to Google from Beijing on Wednesday, the message beneath the US search bar –usually reserved for in-house advertisments like YouTube- was the following ‘learn about your First Amendment rights with 1 for all’. A coïncidence ? Hard to believe. 

Back in January –when it all began – after a number of ‘cyberattacks’, Google wrote on its official blog that the ‘primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists’. Google responded to the attacks by threating to stop the ‘self-censoring which was a condition of their operating within China’. And so, they did… pull out of China but not entirely. 

Rather than close operations, the company has bypassed Chinese censorship by redirecting traffic from to, which delivers uncensored search results from their Hong Kong servers. While it may be legal – thanks to the loophole afforded by China’s ‘one country, two system’ policy- the Chinese made it clear they took issue with the ‘Google Style’ solution. However, now that the Chinese authorities have told them to stop that system, Google will find out if it’s going to be shut down once and for all. 

In the meantime, the US company has added a big fat link on its page, which allows users to link directly to the HK site –a small nod to the Chinese rules of the game. Could that appease China, not usually one to change its opinion on such topics as Internet freedom ? Nobody knows yet. Google’s Internet Content Provider’s licence was up for renewal - or cancellation – on June 30th but as of today, nothing has happened. But Google clearly planned its escape, hence the new web page for checking daily updates of service availability in China.

The Chinese press has reacted with a dose of triumphalism to the news that Google still hoped to keep a presence on the mainland after all, with headlines such as ‘Google kneels down and Begs for Netizens to Bookmark its Hong Kong Page’. A notable theme in the coverage, however is that the Chinese position on censorship has evolved over the months from complete avoidance of the subject – and repeated statements that ‘all foreign companies are welcome to China as long as they abide by the law’- to a far more confident embrace of the fact that the government damn-well does censor the Web, thank you very much ! 

Now, not to play conspiracy theorist here, but we must wonder whether a shut-down in the country isn’t Google’s end goal –today at least-. It’s not that far-fetched considering the repeated public international campaining of the whole debacle. And what better way to do it ? By just pulling out ? Or by first trying to do the ‘right’ thing, defying censorhip and getting thrown out of the country, looking like a hero ? Maybe that’s too crazy to believe but so is the fact that when Google’s servers were hacked in China, the company suddenly realized censorship is bad. Something just doesn’t add up. 

The unlikeliest scenario here is that the Chinese goverment just throws its hand up and in a if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em style, abandon its addiction to censorship and goes along with Google’s new method. Beyond a miracle like that, Google has two possible steps : either return to censorship – which would look very very very bad-, or a parting of ways – which would make Google loook valiant for trying…and totally un-evil. 

The fact of the matter is that if Google does leave the mainland, there are chinese –and foreign companies- that will take up the search engine slack. Obviously, chinese companies –namely Baidu, leader of search engines- are in a much weaker position to challenge official censorship rules. And as far as western companies go, Microsoft’s search engine Bing stands to gain if Google was to definitely leave the country.
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