China denies Google hacking claims

Communist regime defiant after US company threatens to withdraw from country

Brushing aside Google's threat to pull out of the country as a triviality barely worth noticing, China stuck to its guns on its online censorship policy yesterday, saying foreign internet firms were welcome in China but only if they obeyed the law.

In the government's cautiously worded official response, there was not a hint of compromise on lowering the Great Firewall of China. But China's online readership remained defiantly supportive of Google's threat to leave China over cyber attacks on rights activists' email accounts.

The exterior of China's Google offices have become a focal point for public anger. Some visitors poured small glasses of liquor, a Chinese funeral ritual, while another left a copy of People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China, to represent the tightly controlled state media that China's public would be left with if Google pulls out and censorship continues.

"Google is the true hero in this silent city," read one note outside the building in the west of the city.

The challenge thrown down to Beijing by the world's biggest search engine is being closely monitored abroad, as it is the first time that a major international company has dared to voice frustration at the regime's restrictive practices. But if the company was expecting some give and take, they will have been disappointed.

Jiang Yu, the foreign ministry spokeswoman, said email hacking – one of Google's main issues with the regime – was prohibited in China, and made the surprising claim that "China's internet is open."

"China welcomes international internet enterprises to conduct business in China according to law," she said.

The showdown between Google and China was provoked when human rights actitivists had their Gmail accounts hacked into. One of them, Teng Biao, wrote on his blog that someone broke into his Gmail account and forwarded an email to another account. "Google leaving China makes people sad, but accepting censorship in order to stay in China and abandoning its 'Don't Be Evil' principle would be more than just sad," Teng wrote.

The strict government line exposes the gulf between what many webizens in China consider normal when using the internet, and what the government considers the true purpose of the online world.

China's online market of 338 million people makes it a hard one to ignore, but the government's efforts to control the web bring it into conflict with companies like Google for whom freedom of speech is a fundamental principle.

Increasingly, the debate is looking like a battle over conflicting views of the purpose of the net.

In the West, it is considered a free-for-all platform for all forms of communication, but Beijing sees its function as primarily commercial. It employs thousands of net nannies and filters to block access to material that it deems subversive or pornographic.

The Global Times, an English-language newspaper published by People's Daily, which generally follows government policy, warned that Google leaving China would be a "lose-lose" situation. "Google is taking extreme measures but it is reminding us that we should pay attention to the issue of the free flow of information," it said. "We have to advance with the times."