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Google set to pull out of China over censorship

Decision highlights US concern at communist state's online activities

After weeks of doubt over whether Google would stay or go, the web giant now looks ready to close its China website, google.cn, over web censorship. After a blog posting this year suggested that the company was to reconsider how it did business in China, reports over the weekend suggested that the company could announce the closure of google.cn as early as today. And that news has sparked a rash of furious broadsides in the Chinese state media, accusing the American giant of politicising the dispute.

"It is unfair for Google to impose its own value and yardsticks on Internet regulation to China," said one piece on state news website, Xinhua. The piece, signed by three Xinhua writers, predicted that, "one company's ambition to change China's internet rules and legal system will only prove to be ridiculous".

Google's exit has been on the cards since the search engine complained that its servers had been attacked by sophisticated hackers from inside China. "We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results," chief legal officer David Drummond wrote in January. "We recognise this may mean having to shut down google.cn, and potentially our offices in China." Some internet users laid flowers outside the company's Beijing headquarters.

But the decision was also an uncomfortable reminder that many Western companies have chosen to compromise their principles on free speech and censorship to cash in on the burgeoning China market. At present, Google lags behind the dominant Baidu search engine, which holds about 59 per cent of the market in China but censors its results. About 36 per cent of searches go through Google, a position that makes the country ripe for profitable expansion, if it can be squared with the company's claimed ethos, "Don't be evil". Under apparent pressure from Chinese advertisers to reach a decision, Google's CEO Eric Schmidt said last week that the company would make its mind up "soon".

The decision took on a deeper political significance after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton weighed in to criticise China's monitoring of cyberspace. The Chinese response was to accuse the US of "information imperialism".

In a thundering editorial at the weekend, the China Daily said Google risked alienating the world's biggest internet market with 400 million users. "Chinese netizens did not expect the Google issue to snowball into a political minefield and become a tool in the hands of vested interests abroad to attack China under the pretext of internet freedom," the editorial said.

The Beijing government is keen to foster the business and trade applications of the internet, but regularly cracks down on pornographic material or items which are deemed subversive. This is a broad umbrella that includes blogs by human rights activists or foreign pro-democracy groups, as well as organisations representing Tibetan or Uighur rights. It also means that social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as online video site YouTube are banned in China.