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In China, Google users worry they may lose an engine of progress

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By John Pomfret
Saturday, March 20, 2010

BEIJING -- When Google announced that it would pull out of China if it had to continue censoring content, Zhao Hun went to the Internet giant's Beijing headquarters with a bouquet of flowers.

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For the popular blogger and human rights activist, the flowers signified his support for Google's battle for freedom of expression -- but they also underscored a loss. Chinese send flowers to funerals. To Zhao and many others here, the Jan. 12 announcement foreshadowed Google's demise in China -- and the end of something else: the notion that China would continue to slowly evolve as a more tolerant nation.

"I used to believe that over time there would be more freedom and openness," Zhao said. "But I haven't seen it so far. I feel lost."

Since coming to China in 2005, Google has, as in much of the rest of the world, become embedded in the lives of its users. Its search engine Google.cn has almost one-third of the market share in a country with 350 million Internet users. Hundreds of government officials have Gmail accounts, according to estimates by one senior Chinese official involved in monitoring the Internet. Chinese exporters can't work without Google Translate. An estimated 12 million Chinese use Google Maps every day. Scientists and researchers rely on the Google Reader and Google Scholar for the latest in academic work.

"When I meet something unfamiliar, my first reaction is to Google it," said Chen Xiaoqiang, a 30-year-old instructor at a business school, sounding like the average Web-savvy American. "Even when I can't find my glasses, I have the impulse to search for them on Google."

"Without Google, our academic research will be seriously affected," said Ma Yuanye, a 55-year-old biologist based in Kunming in southwest China. "If Google is blocked, we will see nothing but darkness."

But Google's exit would mean something else to Chen, Ma and others like them -- a kind of abandonment, they say. Although many who were interviewed said they supported Google's decision to confront the Chinese government, they also said its departure would make them feel even more marginalized in Chinese society, stuck between a state committed to controlling information and a freer outside world.

Even though it didn't dominate the Chinese market, Google's presence put pressure on its main Chinese search engine competitor, Baidu, to limit questionable practices such as mixing ads with search results.

There are ways to work around the government barriers. Some Internet users join a virtual private network that allows them to jump what is known as China's Great Firewall and access the uncensored Web. But only an estimated 400,000 Chinese have accounts with commercial VPN services, for $25 to $40 a year. And the Chinese government blocks free VPN sites.

In the end, as is true in most places, Google matters here.

It has been targeted by the government for months. On June 18, China's state-run television accused Google of providing links to pornographic content. A reporter on air with a computer screen next to him entered the search term for "son." The result, he claimed, was "mother-son incest."

Later that night, the popular "Focus Interview" program featured an interview with a university student named Gao Ye. Gao recounted how one of his classmates became fixated with pornography after searching for it on Google.

But then online researchers discovered that Gao was not just a student but an intern at the TV station, casting doubts on his on-air claims. Online researchers also turned up evidence of large-scale searches for "mother son incest" from Internet service provider addresses located near the TV station, leading some to conclude that the Google search had been fixed from the outset.

It is unclear how the attacks on Google might have played into the U.S.-based company's decision to vow to stop censoring its search engine results. Google spokespeople have declined to comment.

What does appear certain is that Google is following through with its threat to close at least its Google.cn search engine. The Chinese Business News newspaper on Friday quoted an unidentified business agent close to Google as saying the firm would cease some operations in April. A Google spokesman declined to comment. Earlier Chinese news reports cited official sources saying discussions between the company and the government are at an impasse.

Tencent, China's biggest online chat service, already has a search engine and may have plans to improve it. Even the state-run New China News Agency might get into the game. Baidu's stock has jumped almost 50 percent since Google's January announcement.

For its part, the Chinese government has looked at Google's threats with alarm, although publicly it has sought to appear unconcerned. Google's departure would mark the first time that a major corporation has left China since Levi Strauss pulled out in 1993 after alleging "pervasive" violations of human rights in the country. (It returned to China in 2008.)

Chinese officials have expressed concern in internal meetings, several participants said, that a Google pullout could result in an anti-government backlash, comparable to the anti-government sentiment that led to massive student protests in 1989. In part to head off such an outpouring, the government has sought to frame the Google fight as a battle against American imperialism.

"The United States has been weakened by the international financial crisis and its wars against terrorism so the U.S. has shifted its strategic center from the military to the Internet," said the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party. "Google has become a tool of the U.S. to implement its Internet hegemony."

That thinking has begun to influence some Google users in China.

"Google knew that China had Internet censorship when they entered the market several years ago, so why didn't they say anything then?" asked Liao Guanhui, a 29-year-old real estate investor in the southern province of Guangdong. "I'm sure there is pressure from the U.S. government. The U.S. is trying to push the Chinese government. But this is irritating. And the Chinese government won't agree."

Staff researchers Zhang Jie and Wang Juan contributed to this report.



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