In China, All Eyes On Google

Chinese Internet professionals are watching Google closely after it threatened to pull out of the China market last week. How China's government responds to Google could complicate an already restrictive business environment for Chinese Internet companies. The government is showing that it envisions the Internet developing in China in ways that are very different from the rest of the world.

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Google's threat last week to pull out of China was just one chapter in the complicated story of China's relationship with the Internet. Chinese authorities have brought a heavy hand to controlling the environment, not only for Google, but for Chinese Internet firms.

As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing, the government's approach shows it has a different vision for the Internet than other countries.

(Soundbite of office)

ANTHONY KUHN: On a Friday night, Beijing IT professionals gather in a corporate office to discuss the implications of Google's threat to quit China. The desks are strewn with cans of Tsingtao beer and iPhones. There's a young blogger nicknamed White Crow(ph) in jeans and a baseball cap. He recalls other U.S. Internet companies, such as eBay and Yahoo, which have left the Chinese market in defeat - at least in his eyes. But he speaks approvingly of what he considers Google sticking to its principles.

Mr. WHITE CROW: (Chinese spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter)

KUHN: Google went out like a man, he says.

Sitting nearby is IT worker Jao Gong(ph). When Google first threatened to pull out of China, he was one of the first to lay flowers outside Google's China headquarters in Beijing.

Mr. JAO GONG: (Through Translator) The long-term policy of censorship has made it very difficult for an entire industry to develop. We were already very angry at this. The government has been increasing its control over us like boiling frogs in a pot. When this incident occurred, we felt it was our duty to speak out.

KUHN: Last year, China tightened Internet management and shut down a number of popular Web sites with little explanation. For example, in addition to blocking the popular microblogging site Twitter, it also blocked several Chinese imitators. It then allowed the Communist Party's People's Daily newspaper to open its own heavily-censored Twitter clone.

IT blogger Huang Boa(ph) says there's often a profit motive behind China's Internet controls.

Mr. HUANG BOA: (Through translator) Censorship comes first and clears the way. Then state-owned firms rush in to grab up the profits.

KUHN: Huang says that the Internet in recent years has seen a rise in interactive social networking sites. But Chinese authorities, he says, envision an Internet that they can more easily control.

Mr. BOA: (Through Translator) My advice to startups is if it involves user-generated content, you'd best not do it. It's too risky. The government can kill off your venture for any reason it chooses.

KUHN: Not long after Google threatened to pull out of China, state broadcaster, China Central Television, launched its own Internet search engine.

Former President of Yahoo! China, Xie Wen, says that government-created Web sites aren't competitive. He says that CCTV search engine is hardly capable of threatening Google.

Mr. XIE WEN (Former President, Yahoo! China): (Through translator) It doesn't even do a good job of finding content on CCTV's own Web site. In the Information Age, you can't rely on authority, monopoly and control over resources to succeed.

KUHN: Blogger Huang Boa says that Beijing is unlikely to back down in the face of what it considers a challenge from Google. He's concerned that if Google leaves China, the government might even take revenge by blocking Chinese Internet users' access to Google Web sites overseas. Many analysts are already watching to see how Chinese competitors may profit from Google's departure. Xie Wen says that any glee at Google's misfortune is shortsighted.

Mr. WEN: (Through translator) When the free flow of information is suppressed, what use is it if your product is technically superior? When the whole market is constricted, being number one is worth much less.

KUHN: The U.S. is expected to launch a formal diplomatic protest this week over the cyber attacks that Google says could prompt it to pull out of China.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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