By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 13, 2010; A16
BEIJING -- China's top Internet regulator warned Google on Friday that it must obey Chinese laws or "pay the consequences," in the bluntest official reaction yet to Google's threat to pull out of China unless the government stops censoring the Internet.
The statement by Li Yizhong, the minister of industry and information technology, appeared to reflect a toughening of China's position on the issue and to frame the dispute as part of a foreign plot to subvert and contain China.
"If you want to do something that disobeys Chinese law and regulations, you are unfriendly, you are irresponsible, and you will have to pay the consequences," Li told the Associated Press on the sidelines of the annual session of China's rubber-stamp legislature, the National People's Congress in Beijing.
Li appeared unconcerned about the prospect of Google exiting the Chinese market as it has threatened. "Whether they leave or not is up to them," Li said. "But if they leave, China's Internet market is still going to develop."
Google had about a 30 percent share of China's search-engine market, which is dominated by Baidu, a Chinese company. But it is popular among wealthier Chinese because it censors less material than Baidu and because Baidu has been accused of tweaking search results to favor advertisers.
On Wednesday, Google chief executive Eric Schmidt said in the United Arab Emirates that negotiations are continuing and that he expects a resolution soon.
Li was unrepentant Friday about the desirability of censorship. "If there is information that harms stability or the people, of course we will have to block it," he said.
Google's announcement Jan. 12 that it would no longer tolerate censorship, as well as its revelation of a series of China-based hacking attacks on Western businesses and the e-mail accounts of human rights activists in China, shocked Chinese authorities, according to a senior Chinese government researcher. More worrisome was the outpouring of sympathy for Google; flowers piled up at its Beijing headquarters.
The Chinese government initially played down the dispute, but in recent weeks it has sought to counter the pro-Google sympathy, alleging that the affair was being used by the U.S. company to contain China. That trend accelerated after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave a speech about the Internet and freedom Jan. 21.
"The Internet is a pragmatic tool that can be used like a gang or an accomplice to help the U.S. government subvert state power," read one of numerous essays that appeared on the Web site of the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.