Google's China headache not likely to go away

Google's decision to reverse course in China and move its search operation to Hong Kong follows years of agonizing about the best choice in China, and such dilemmas won't end Monday.

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
3 min read

The one-company, two-systems concept didn't work for Google in China. It's not clear how long having one system will work, either.

In following through on its very public threat to shut down its censored Chinese-language search engine on Monday, Google ended months of speculation about its plans following its January announcement that it had been hacked by cybercriminals working from inside China. And in the same moment that Google started redirecting traffic from Google.cn to Google.com.hk and its Hong Kong-based servers, a new era for Google and its operation in China began.

Google China Hong Kong
Google's Hong Kong-based Chinese-language search engine is now its only Chinese search service: the highlighted text reads "Welcome to Google search in China's new home."

Hong Kong enjoys special legal rights that most of China does not, under the "one country, two systems" approach, allowing Google to remain technically inside of China but free to offer an uncensored search engine. But the vast majority of Chinese Internet users sit behind The Great Firewall of China, which gives the Chinese government the ability to restrict certain Web sites from appearing on computers in China.

That was the whole reason Google agreed to censor its search engine when it entered China, arguing that it wanted to provide a better searching experience for the vast majority of queries that aren't politically sensitive. Such a choice, however, was seen by many as a violation of Google's mission to organize and make accessible--as opposed to block--the world's information, and it was said to personally bother co-founder Sergey Brin, a native of the Soviet Union.

So now Google will try a new balancing act. "Welcome to Google search in China's new home," read the message on the home page of Google.com.hk, greeting visitors to the former Google.cn.

Google very much wants to remain part of the Chinese Internet market, which is already the world's largest, despite the fact that only 25 percent of the country is actively using the Internet. Its presence in that market will likely be dictated by Chinese Internet censors, who have already started blocking clicks to search results on Google.com.hk, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Brin told The New York Times on Monday that "there's a lot of lack of clarity" regarding Google's future in China. "Our hope is that the newly begun Hong Kong service will continue to be available in mainland China," he said.

There's a similar lack of clarity as to how Google's decision will be perceived by Chinese Internet users. Google trailed homegrown search engine Baidu by a significant margin in the country, but Google was a favorite of younger users and technology enthusiasts.

Xinhua, the state-run official news agency in China, published a commentary on Monday, originally written by Hong Kong's Sing Tao Daily, slamming Google's "arrogance" for asking China to change its laws.

"China's top leaders have a constant policy that stresses opening up to the world. But Google has challenged the Chinese government's sovereignty by demanding the government accept Google's presumed definition on 'opening up,'" according to a translated version of the commentary published by Xinhua.

Google therefore might be perceived as an unfriendly interloper by a fair amount of Chinese Internet users, who will be quite content to use services such as Baidu, especially if Google's performance is hampered from traffic having to pass through The Great Firewall to its site. And Google fans who wanted the company to stick it out in China could be disappointed by their decision, knowing full well how censorship works outside of China's borders.

China has never been an easy subject for Google, and it has forced the humbling realization that while Google has arguably changed the world, it can't change China. The Chinese government is not likely to forget this dispute and the very public way in which it played out.

Can Google maintain a compelling presence inside of one of the world's most important countries working from the outside? Four years ago, it came to the opposite conclusion, before reversing itself Monday.

Unless things really do change inside of China, there's not likely to be a third opportunity to take a new approach.