SAN FRANCISCO – With negotiations over censorship at an impasse, Google Inc. shut down its search engine operation in China on Monday and redirected users to uncensored results – a move certain to anger the Chinese government and jeopardize Google’s future in the world’s most populous country.
In taking the extraordinary action, Google said it was making good on a promise it made two months ago, when it said it would not self-censor the site as demanded by Chinese officials. At the time, Google also complained that it had been a victim of a sophisticated cyber attack originating from China.
“Figuring out how to make good on our promise to stop censoring search on Google.cn has been hard,” David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, wrote in a blog post. “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.”
The response from China was swift.
“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,” said an unnamed government leader quoted by China’s official news service, Xinhua.
Google said it would try to remain a presence in China by directing search engine requests by Chinese users to its uncensored Hong Kong service. Although it remains to be seen whether that strategy will work, experts say one thing is certain: It will further strain the company’s relations with China.
“It shows a protest against the Chinese government’s wishes,” said Christopher Tang, a business professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Google has burned its bridges. It has made the Chinese government lose face.”
As a result of Google’s decision Monday to stop self-censoring in China and reroute to Hong Kong, users were able to get access to many more results when searching on sensitive topics such as the Tiananmen Square crackdown, Taiwanese independence and the Dalai Lama. But the links provided on the Hong Kong service were successfully blocked by China’s censorship machinery, known as the Great Firewall, and could not be opened.
If the standoff persists, Google will lose advertising revenue and the chance to further develop its other businesses, including mobile applications, in a country with nearly 400 million Web users.
“This is a huge hit businesswise, no question,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, a visiting fellow at Princeton and expert on Chinese censorship.
The shock waves from the decision could also extend from Silicon Valley, where Google is based, to Washington, D.C., some think.
“This will mean more clouds for U.S.-China relations,” said Cheng Li, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who focuses on China.