Google's decision to stop self-censoring the search results of Google China – essentially pulling out of the world's biggest market – has created changes for end users on the mainland, though so far they amount to ones of style rather than substance.
The key difference today is that a search attempted on Google.cn is redirected to Google.com.hk, the company's affiliate in Hong Kong, where China does not demand Internet censorship.
A search for the Chinese version of "tank man" on the old self-censored version of Google in China would yield a page of search results that would omit many listings for the iconic photo of a Chinese man confronting a row of tanks at Tiananmen Square in 1989. A search via Google.com.hk from the mainland today returns most of the results that point to the image – but those are censored by the so-called "Great Firewall of China" when a user tries to click through.
That means Google’s much-heralded decision to withdraw from China on moral grounds has done little to change the Internet experience for users on the mainland. The overnight move leaves Google's search engine up and running in China, while following through with its pledge to not censor
its own search engine.
Nevertheless, China lashed out at the dominant search-engine company, which has annual revenue of $24 billion, about 2 percent of that from China.
"Google has violated its written promise it made when entering the Chinese market by stopping filtering its searching service and blaming China ... for alleged hacker attacks," an unidentified Chinese official told the state-owned Xinhua News Agency. "This is totally wrong. We're uncompromisingly opposed to the politicization of commercial issues, and express our discontent and indignation to Google for its unreasonable accusations and conducts."
Distinction without a difference?
For now, Google seems to be having it both ways: refusing complicity in censorship, while holding onto its mainland China business.
For many educated Chinese Internet users, this is a relief. While the Chinese company Baidu dominates the search market for China’s estimated 350 million Internet users, Google offers better services – such as the full textbooks – than Baidu in some areas.
“I use Google a lot. There is so much that Baidu doesn’t catch. There’s still a big technological disparity,” said a web developer who asked not to be named. “I'll keep using Google, and a VPN [virtual private network] in the patchy areas. Google's not dead.”
On Jan. 12, Google announced it would stop censoring search results. Since 2006, it has operated and censored Google.cn tailored to the Mainland market.
“I think Google lost its cool a bit [in January], but it's a tough company,” said the web developer. “I have never thought Google would leave, but I hope it figures out a way to adapt to China's environment, say, by using technology to shield 'illegal content.' "
Google’s move to some looked like a facesaving compromise after two months of negotiations with the Chinese government. But others predicted the current situation wouldn’t last.
“The Google team is technically still in mainland China, but I think it eventually will be kicked out,” says Xu Yao, the product manager
for a Chinese Website. “Censorship is the Chinese government's consistent style.”
Ma Xiaolin, who runs a blshe.com, a blog-hosting site, agreed with the unnamed official: “As a business, Google's main role is to provide products, and it shouldn't get involved with politics. Ninety-nine percent of Chinese netizens' daily searches are nonpolitical. Google should not politicize commercial issues.”