Beijing denounces Google decision to quit

Internet users redirected to Hong Kong website after two-month censorship row

Beijing issued a strong denunciation of Google yesterday for its decision to close down its website in China as questions emerged over the search engine giant's long-term future in the country.

The company has redirected all users to a website hosted in Hong Kong after a two-month standoff over a censorship system known as "The Great Firewall of China". However, Chinese users are worried that the government will impose tighter restrictions on internet use than before. Internet users in Beijing reported intermittent access to the site yesterday and failed to reach websites with content deemed "sensitive" by the Chinese authorities.

Officials continued a vocal assault on the company yesterday. "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 conduct," an official at the Internet bureau told the Xinhua news agency.

Floral tributes were left outside the group's headquarters in Beijing. Inside, executives briefed nervous employees about what lines of the company's business would continue. At least one client who called in and was anxious about his Google advertising account found staff members confused. "Nobody in there could give me a clear answer," Pan Yun, manager of a Beijing real estate website, told the Associated Press. "I just want to know if our business can continue but they couldn't give me an answer."

Google threatened in January to leave China, despite its powerful market of nearly 400 million internet users, because it was no longer prepared to tolerate censorship of its site. The government has strongly criticised Google's decision, and was backed yesterday by plenty of online postings saying "Google go home."

The Chinese government says it is opening up the internet gradually, and says its primary concern is to control pornography. Critics of the stance say the blocks are used to target dissent.

Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge University, said that the Chinese authorities monitored websites and forbidden phrases to block users from reaching content. He said there were also 40,000 policemen devoted to policing the internet and its users.

Google is not entirely abandoning the Chinese market and will host a research unit, sales division, map services and a music portal. However, there are question-marks over how long these services can continue if the Chinese government decides Google has broken the law.

Many Chinese admired Google for taking a stand against censorship but ask why it took the web giant so long to realise the futility of its struggle.

"Google is just an internet company," said Gu Jun, 27, who works in public relations. "I don't feel anything has changed. China is a big market. I don't think Google has the courage to just leave China."

Fan Fan, 26, an accountant, said: "Google has hit the 'Great Firewall'. Of course it's going to get hurt."