Online word spread quickly of Google's possible departure from the country rather than tolerate more censorship of its Chinese-language site. Beijing downplays the news.
Reporting from Beijing - Bouquets of flowers were laid in front of Google Inc.'s headquarters in China today, a show of support for a company whose threat to exit China rather than tolerate more censorship is a dramatic shot across the bow of the Chinese Communist Party.
But while Chinese cyberspace was awash with chatter on Google's gambit, state-media downplayed the news Tuesday, saying Google had been a victim of cyber attacks in China but made no mention that the company also alleged human rights activists had their e-mail accounts hacked.
Nevertheless, word spread quickly among China's savvier Internet users that the Mountain View, Calif., company was no longer willing to censor its Chinese-language search engine. Some noticed that Google searches for the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown turned up the banned, but iconic, photograph of a protester standing in front of a line 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.org, has been blocked since last summer by China's Internet filtering technology, known as the Great Firewall.
Bei Feng, a blogger who led a campaign to abolish the firewall, said losing Google would be a big blow. However, he and many others like him would likely use proxy servers to continue accessing their products.
"I admire Google's decision a lot," said Bei, 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."
Beijing has yet to respond in name to the search engine's announcement. The government's New China News Agency reported today 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. Nobody knows," the official said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday that Google's allegations raised serious 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 controls in 2009, launching a campaign against pornography and illegal downloading that critics say was a guise to limit more freedom of information.
Chinese bloggers are increasingly clamoring for the government to tear down the firewall with language evoking the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
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" meeting in Shanghai.
Human rights groups viewed Google's decision to make its allegations public as a step in the right direction -- explaining it placed pressure on Beijing to reconsider its approach to the Internet because of the purported cyber attacks on, not only Google, but various 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 China's most popular search engine, Baidu.com. It struggled to resonate with the majority of China's 300 million Internet users, many who 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 -- often a minority of 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, they lured away executive Kai-Fu Lee, a hero to China's tech-savvy urbanites with his top-selling motivational books.
An online survey of over 13,000 people on the news site, huanqiu.com, asked if the Chinese government should accommodate Google. About three-quarters said "yes" by late today.
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."