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China accuses Google of violating promises

China reacts quickly to Google's decision to stop censoring the internet for China by shifting its search engine off the mainland.

BEIJING // China reacted quickly today to Google's decision to stop censoring the internet for China by shifting its search engine off the mainland, accusing the company of violating promises. Google said on January 12 it would pull out part of its service if it had to keep censoring internet results. Visitors to Google's old service for China, Google.cn, are now being redirected to the Chinese-language service based in Hong Kong, where Google does not censor searches.

"Google has violated its written promise it made when entering the Chinese market by stopping filtering its searching service and blaming China in insinuation for alleged hacker attacks," the official Xinhua News Agency quoted an official in a statement issued just hours after Google's announcement. "This is totally wrong. We're uncompromisingly opposed to the politicisation of commercial issues, and express our discontent and indignation to Google for its unreasonable accusations and conducts," the unnamed official said. The Hong Kong page heralded the shift on Monday.

"Welcome to Google Search in China's new home." The site also began displaying search results in the simplified Chinese characters used in mainland China. But the results can't all be accessed inside China, because government filters restrict the links that can be clicked by mainland audiences. The official quoted from the State Council, or Cabinet, said the government talked to Google twice to try to resolve the standoff.

"We made patient and meticulous explanations on the questions Google raised ... telling it we would still welcome its operation and development in China if it was willing to abide by Chinese laws, while it would be its own affair if it was determined to withdraw its service," the official said. "Foreign companies must abide by Chinese laws and regulations when they operate in China." It was not clear whether Google notified regulators in advance about the switch to the Hong Kong service. The Chinese government could retaliate by blocking access to Google's services, much as it has completely shut off YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

China has an estimated 350 million internet users. Google's Gmail e-mail service remained accessible from within China, as did its news page, though attempts to call up specific articles on China were blocked. The withdrawal of its search engine makes Google the latest foreign internet company to founder in the heavily regulated China market. Companies such as Yahoo, eBay and Microsoft's MSN instant messaging service have never gained the traction in the China market that their home-grown rivals do. Still the decision is likely to further dismay many younger internet-literate Chinese, who admired Google's fight against censorship even though they don't like to be reminded of the government's heavy hand.

In the days after Google first announced a possible pull-out, some Chinese placed flowers outside Google's Beijing office building. In anticipation of Google's move, Chinese state media cranked up the criticism of Google in recent days in a co-ordinated assault apparently aimed at swaying public opinion against the US search engine giant as it debates exiting China. Recent commentaries carried by both Xinhua and the China Daily newspaper accused Google of harbouring a political agenda and said the company should understand that it has to comply with the laws of countries where it does business.

"Business is business. But when it involves political tricks, business will come to an end soon," the China Daily wrote. Beijing encourages internet use for education and business but tries to block access to material deemed subversive or pornographic, including web sites abroad run by human rights and pro-democracy activists. The actions to keep China's citizens from finding politically sensitive information and images online have been dubbed the "Great Firewall." * AP

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