China v. Google: Beijing fights back

BEIIJING, China – After days of circumspect near-silence amid an international debate on Chinese censorship and surveillance that began more than a week ago when Google threatened to quit its operations here, China came out swinging Friday.

In a statement posted to its website, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Thursday’s tough speech from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton threatened to harm U.S.-China relations.

“We urge the United States to respect the facts and cease using so-called internet freedom to make groundless accusations against China,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said.

“The United States has criticized China's policies to administer the internet and insinuated that China restricts internet freedom,” Ma said. “This runs contrary to the facts.”

Ma was responding to Clinton’s provocative speech Thursday, where she called for an open global internet and described censorship as a threat. Without directly naming China, Clinton referred to a “virtual walls,” that hinder the flow of information and free expression.

“Some countries have erected electronic barriers that prevent their people from accessing portions of the world’s networks,” said Clinton. “They’ve expunged words, names and phrases from search engine results. They have violated the privacy of citizens who engage in non-violent political speech.”

Clinton also decried mass hacker attacks, like the one on dozens of U.S. tech companies that Google exposed last week in its threat to leave China. The internet giant said an attack “originating in China” went after the company’s intellectual property, and that Gmail accounts of human rights activists were also compromised. China, meanwhile, contends it is the number one target of hacker attacks in the world.

In the end, of course, it is China’s internet population that stands to lose the most. Net watchers say that since Google entered the Chinese market four years ago — agreeing to censor search results but adding a tag telling users that its search results were censored — awareness of censorship has increased dramatically in China. Though many are savvy about using proxies and other methods to skirt the Great Firewall, the vast majority don’t bother.

Kaiser Kuo, a Beijing-based technology consultant and writer, has been watching the Google fallout closely and said so many factors are still at play, it’s difficult to guess what might happen.

“One can only speculate what will happen in the event of a Google withdrawal,” said Kuo.

“If it's limited to just the shuttering of, I don't think changes will be terribly profound,” he said. “But if Google decamps in an atmosphere of real acrimony and Beijing decides to block, Gmail, Google Docs, Google Earth and the whole slew of services, that's another story entirely, and it really will be damaging to the access to information that the ordinary Chinese internet user has.”

Adding to the intrigue, Google has remained quiet since it dropped the bomb on Jan. 12, saying it was no longer willing to censor its search results in China, and it would attempt to negotiate a resolution with the government.

So far, it’s anyone’s guess whether Google will be part of China’s internet world.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct one of the references to the Foreign Ministry spokesman.