Chinese Internet users praise Google’s stand

Bouquets were laid in front of Google Inc.'s headquarters in China on Wednesday, a show of support for a company whose threat to exit the country rather than be party to more censorship is a dramatic shot across the bow of the Chinese Communist Party.

But while Chinese cyberspace was awash with chatter about Google’s gambit, state-controlled media downplayed the story, reporting that Google had been a victim of cyber attacks in China but making no mention of the company’s allegations that human rights activists’ e-mail accounts had been hacked.

Among China’s savvier Internet users, however, word spread quickly that the Mountain View, Calif., company was no longer willing to censor its Chinese-language search engine. Some noted that Google searches for the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown turned up the iconic but banned photograph of a lone protester blocking the path of a column of tanks.

“It is the first time a company this size has made a stand like this. People are cheering Google,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, whose influential website, Danwei, has been blocked since last summer by China’s Internet filtering technology, popularly known as the Great Firewall.

Bei Feng, a blogger who has led a campaign to abolish the firewall, said losing Google would be a big blow. However, he and many others like him probably would use proxy servers to continue accessing the company’s products.

“I admire Google’s decision,” said Bei Feng, whose e-mail account has been hacked into in the past. “Obviously it is a huge loss for Chinese Internet users. Sometimes such a price has to be paid for the long term. It’s a huge slap in the face for the Chinese Communist Party. I think they will try to retaliate.”

On Wednesday, Google said it would improve security for users of its Gmail Web-based e-mail service by encrypting data to its servers.

Beijing has yet to respond specifically to the company’s announcement. The government’s New China News Agency reported Wednesday that an unnamed lower official in China’s Cabinet was seeking more information on Google’s new stance.

“It is still hard to say whether Google will quit China or not,” the official said.

The prospect of a pullback was good news for Google’s biggest Chinese rival, Baidu Inc., whose shares surged nearly $60, or 14%, on Wednesday. Google shares slipped $3.39, less than 1%, to $587.09.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Google’s allegations raised concerns.

“We look to the Chinese government for an explanation,” she said in Honolulu. “The ability to operate with confidence in cyberspace is critical in a modern society and economy.”

China stepped up its Internet policing efforts in 2009, launching a campaign against pornography and illegal downloading that critics say was a ruse to restrict the movement of information.

Chinese bloggers are increasingly clamoring for the government to tear down the firewall, and President Obama made Internet censorship a central theme of his maiden visit to China in November, inviting bloggers to submit questions at a town hall-style meeting in Shanghai.

Human rights groups viewed Google’s decision to make its allegations public as a step in the right direction -- reasoning that it placed pressure on Beijing to reconsider its approach to the Internet because of the purported cyber attacks carried out against Google as well as various other foreign companies.

“The ball is now in the Chinese government’s court,” said Sharon Hom of Human Rights in China. “They have to prove that doing business in China is safe, fair and predictable.”

Google has always played second fiddle to Baidu, China’s most popular search engine. It has struggled to resonate with China’s more than 300 million Internet users, many of whom favor easy access to pirated songs and chat forums.

Where the search engine succeeded was in appealing to many of China’s young and progressive voices -- bloggers, activists and proponents of information freedom.

The company invested deeply in research and development by hiring university graduates. After a protracted legal battle with Microsoft Corp., it lured away executive Kai-Fu Lee, a hero to China’s tech-savvy urbanites with his top-selling motivational books.

An online survey of more than 13,000 people on the news site asked whether the Chinese government should accommodate Google. About three-quarters said “yes” by late Wednesday.

But not all were sympathetic to Google’s stand. Fang Xingdong, an IT blogger, said he felt betrayed by the company.

“I think it’s a stupid decision for Google,” Fang said. “They didn’t consult Chinese Internet users. It is extremely irresponsible. . . . In terms of innovation, Google is a world leader. If they pull out, it is going to be a huge blow to the Internet industry in China.”

Tommy Yang in The Times’ Beijing bureau and Jessica Guynn in The Times’ San Francisco bureau contributed to this report.