By Ellen Nakashima and Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 30, 2010; A08
Google's move Tuesday to assuage China by severing a direct Internet link to an uncensored companion search site in Hong Kong could buy the company a reprieve from losing its operating license, but in the long run, Chinese officials will not tolerate efforts to expand Internet freedom if that threatens the regime, analysts said.
"At the end of the day, they'll do what they have to do to stay in power," said James A. Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "If that means smite Google, they'll do it."
Google submitted a license-renewal application Tuesday spelling out its intention to redirect Chinese users from Google.cn to a page with Google's Hong Kong address, which users can click on. That site is uncensored, and China has made it clear that it is unacceptable.
Google began redirecting users to the Hong Kong site in March after it announced it would no longer abide by China's censorship rules. At the time, the Internet giant said it had been subjected to sophisticated and repeated cyberattacks launched from China, aimed at hacking the e-mail accounts of human rights activists.
It is not clear when China will decide whether to renew the license, but at least in the short run, Lewis said, it is not in Beijing officials' interest to offend Washington by rebuffing Google. With Chinese President Hu Jintao coming to Washington in November to meet with President Obama, Lewis said, "the last thing they want is a big fight."
China is facing increasing pressure from Web-savvy citizens, or "netizens," to allow a free Internet. But the government's distrust of dissidents and distaste for open political speech have led it to insist on censorship, despite the dampening effect on innovation and scientific development.
Rao Yi, dean of life sciences at Peking University, said he thinks China will not shut down Google Scholar, a search engine for academic articles. "There would be no replacement," Rao said. Such a move would be "extremely stupid," he said.
But Cong Cao, a senior research associate at the State University of New York's Levin Institute, said: "Political stability always takes priority. Everything else is secondary."
Google had expressed the hope that by redirecting Chinese users to Hong Kong it could abide by Chinese law and keep its toehold in the lucrative mainland market while still making good on its pledge to no longer practice self-censorship at Beijing's behest. But company officials said it had become clear that if they continued with the practice, the license would not be renewed.
Without an Internet content provider license, "we can't operate a commercial website like Google.cn -- so Google would effectively go dark in China," David Drummond, Google's senior vice president for corporate development and chief legal officer, wrote on the company's official blog. "That's a prospect dreaded by many of our Chinese users, who have been vocal about their desire to keep Google.cn alive."
"We obviously hope that is not the outcome," said a Google official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "But we've been very clear on our commitment not to self-censor."
Rebecca MacKinnon, a visiting fellow at the Princeton University Center for Information Technology Policy, said China has several options, including to renew the license but block Google's Hong Kong site, forcing users to find ways around the firewall. In a "worst-case scenario," she said, it could withhold the license and also block the Hong Kong site, making it very difficult for users to access it without special tools.
Rao criticized Google for acceding to China's demands that it censor results when it first entered the country in 2006.
"Google should never have backed off in the first place," he said.
Richburg reported from Beijing.