China censors searches on Google's Hong Kong-based search engine

Google will shut down in China after a long online censorship dispute with the government. Terry McCarthy reports.
By John Pomfret, Ellen Nakashima and Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 23, 2010; 1:24 PM

BEIJING -- China began blocking results for sensitive searches on Google's Hong Kong-based Web site Tuesday, after the Internet search giant said it would redirect users from the mainland to the Hong Kong site in an effort to avoid Chinese censorship.

Searches on for subjects such as the banned spiritual sect Falun Gong or Tiananmen 64 -- shorthand for the June 4, 1989, crackdown on student-led protests in Beijing -- produced a blank screen or an error message on a computer in Beijing, the Chinese capital. Early in the morning, results were generated but the links were blocked.

Other signs were mounting that China was intent on punishing the Internet giant for its bold but risky decision to publicly confront China's policy of limiting the free flow of information.

A Hong Kong Internet company, called TOM Online, announced it had stopped using Google's search mechanism. "TOM reiterated that as a Chinese company, we adhere to rules and regulations in China where we operate our businesses," the company's parent, Hong Kong-based TOM Group, said in a statement Tuesday.

And two state-owned mobile phone companies -- China Mobile, with 500 million users, and China Unicom, China's second-biggest -- were also believed to be rethinking their contracts with Google. China Mobile uses Google on its mobile home page; China Unicom had planned to introduce a cellphone based on Google's Android platform.

James A. Lewis, director of the technology and public policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said if China tries to restrict Google's advertising business in China, or takes other steps to punish the company for its actions outside mainland China, it would be violating international trade agreements.

"The temptation will be for the Chinese government to look for some way to punish to Google, and that's where we need the U.S. government to step in and say, 'This is contrary to your [trade] commitments,' " Lewis said. "China won't stop filtering, but punishing Google for something they're doing outside of [mainland] China . . . that's extra-territorial and violates its trade commitments."

Google announced Monday that it would stop censoring search results on its site in China, after two months of negotiations with Chinese authorities to determine whether Google could legally operate an unfiltered search engine in China. Chinese officials, the company said Monday, made it "crystal clear . . . that self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement."

Google's efforts to avoid censorship are forcing authorities in Beijing to decide whether they are willing to forsake one of the most important tools of modern technology so that they can maintain their iron grip over the flow of information.

In what analysts described as a shrewd but risky business decision, Google began sending users in mainland China to the site based in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China that operates its own economic and political systems. The company described the move as a "sensible solution."

"This move is entirely legal by Chinese law and Hong Kong law, and that is important to know: that we are abiding by the law," a source at Google said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Still, the decision puts the Internet search giant, which has a huge financial stake in China, on a collision course with Beijing. Despite Google's intention to keep some of its business operations in China, the government there could shut it down, block all of its sites or even take action against some of its 700 employees there.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company