Google decided, after a protracted struggle with China over censorship and that all-too-suspicious hacking of email accounts belonging to Chinese human rights activists, to stop censoring their services in China, including Google Search, Image Search, and News. As this is contrary to China's stance that censorship is a "non-negotiable legal requirement," Google is providing an alternative for Chinese users--but it's not exactly the "complete pull-out" we'd heard rumored to be scheduled for early next month.
"Users visiting Google.cn are now being redirected to Google.com.hk, where we are offering uncensored search in simplified Chinese, specifically designed for users in mainland China and delivered via our servers in Hong Kong," officials have just posted on Google's blog.
Essentially, Google is playing a big legal trick: redirecting mainland Chinese users to a Hong Kong site avoids the legal trouble of an uncensored Chinese Google site, without depriving users. Quoth Google:
We believe this new approach of providing uncensored search in simplified Chinese from Google.com.hk is a sensible solution to the challenges we've faced—it's entirely legal and will meaningfully increase access to information for people in China. We very much hope that the Chinese government respects our decision, though we are well aware that it could at any time block access to our services.
That last bit is notable: Google almost expects China to block the crap out of the redirect. They'll even be creating a new site to monitor exactly how much of their new services are being forcibly blocked by the Chinese government, updated daily.
Google is also showing a little concern about the future of its 600-person sales staff in China, and issuing a bit of a challenge to the Chinese government: if they shut down the redirect to Google HK, Google will have to lay off a percentage of its sales team, as they'll not be needed.
In terms of Google's wider business operations, we intend to continue R&D work in China and also to maintain a sales presence there, though the size of the sales team will obviously be partially dependent on the ability of mainland Chinese users to access Google.com.hk. Finally, we would like to make clear that all these decisions have been driven and implemented by our executives in the United States, and that none of our employees in China can, or should, be held responsible for them.
In response to today's news, both Google's Sergey Brin and China's state-run newspaper have gone on record. Brin, in the New York Times, mentions that Google (and he makes it very clear that the US government has not participated in these discussions) has been in constant contact with the Chinese government, and those discussions led the way for the decision. "There was a sense that Hong Kong was the right step," he said. But Brin also mentions, unsurprisingly, that the talks have not been particularly clear-cut and that Google is left to simply hope that the Chinese government won't ban Google Hong Kong.
The Chinese government, on the other hand, through their state-run propagandist newspaper, accuses (despite a somewhat rough translation) Google of "politicalizing" itself, and forcefully calls Chinese internet access a sovereign, internal issue.
Regrettably, Google's recent behaviors show that the company not just aims at expanding business in China, but is playing an active role in exporting culture, value and ideas. It is unfair for Google to impose its own value and yardsticks on Internet regulation to China, which has its own time-honored tradition, culture and value.
China further calls Google's so-called ambitions to change Chinese culture "ridiculous" and in what's either a bad translation or sort of a hilarious appropriation of American culture, says that Google will "end up to be the biggest loser." Little do they know that here in the States, being the biggest loser is a huge compliment. Because we're all fat.