In China's first official response to Google's threat to leave the country, the government Thursday said foreign internet companies are welcome but must obey the law, and it gave no hint of a possible compromise over web censorship.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu, without mentioning Google by name, said Beijing prohibits email hacking, another issue cited by the company. She was responding to questions about Google at a regular ministry briefing.
"China's internet is open," Jiang said. "China welcomes international internet enterprises to conduct business in China according to law."
Google Inc. said Tuesday it would stop censoring search results in China and might shut down its China-based Google.cn site, citing attempts to break into accounts on its Gmail service used by human rights activists.
Jiang gave no indication whether the government had talked with Google. The state Xinhua News Agency said earlier that officials were seeking more information about its announcement.
The main Communist Party newspaper warned companies to obey government controls, as web users visited Google's Beijing offices for a second day to leave flowers and notes expressing support for the company.
Peoples Daily, citing a cabinet official's comments in November, said companies must help the government keep the internet safe and fight online pornography and cyber attacks.
Web companies must abide by "propaganda discipline," the official, Wang Chen, was quoted as saying. "Companies have to concretely increase the ability of internet media to guide public opinion in order to uphold internet safety."
Dissidents targeted for hacking
Also Thursday, a law professor and human rights lawyer, Teng Biao, wrote on his blog that someone broke into his Gmail account and forwarded email to another account. Teng said he did not know whether he was one of two Chinese activists mentioned by Google as hacking targets.
"Google leaving China makes people sad, but accepting censorship to stay in China and abandoning its 'Don't Be Evil' principles is more than just sad," Teng wrote.
Another Beijing human rights lawyer, Jiang Tianyong, said his Gmail account was hacked in November and important materials taken, the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group announced. Jiang has represented Tibetan activists and advised people with AIDS who are seeking government help.
Outside the Google offices, some visitors poured small glasses of liquor, a Chinese funeral ritual.
One man left a copy of Peoples Daily, which he said represented the tightly controlled state media that China's public would be left with if Google pulls out and censorship continues.
"Google is the true hero in this silent city," said a note left outside the building in the capital's Haidian technology district. Referring to the government web filter, popularly known as the "Great Firewall," another note said, "The tallest walls cannot divide people's sentiments. Google: Bye, let's meet on the other side of the wall."
Employees entered and left the building but declined to talk to reporters.
Google's main U.S. site has a Chinese-language section but Beijing's filters make that slow and difficult to access from China.
Beijing promotes internet use for business and education but operates extensive filters to block access to material deemed subversive or pornographic, including websites run by dissidents and human rights groups. Its market of 338 million internet users is the world's most populous.
Boost for domestic search rival
A Google departure could give a boost to local rival Baidu Inc., allowing it to pick up Google users and advertisers, analysts said.
Baidu, launched in 2000, is a standout in the global search industry — a local competitor that beats giant Google Inc. Baidu has 60 per cent of China's search market and has held onto that despite Google's launch of a local site and relentless efforts to tailor its services to Chinese tastes.
"We view this development as a major positive opportunity for Baidu," Citigroup analysts Catherine Leung and Mark S. Mahaney said in a report.
The Global Times, published by Peoples Daily and known for a fiercely nationalistic tone, took an unusually conciliatory stance Thursday, warning that Google's departure would be a "lose-lose situation" for China.
"Google is taking extreme measures but it is reminding us that we should pay attention to the issue of the free flow of information," the newspaper said. It said China's national influence and competitiveness depend on access to information and added, "We have to advance with the times."
The White House said Wednesday it was briefed by Google on its plans in China but refused to give details. Spokesman Robert Gibbs said President Barack Obama made his stance on internet freedom clear during his trip to China in November, when he told students an open exchange of information makes all countries stronger.
Gibbs said the White House is awaiting China's response to Google's announcement. Asked whether the incident could cause a U.S.-China chill, Gibbs said: "We stood in China when we gave the answer about a free internet. So, the president and this administration have beliefs about the freedom of the internet."
It appeared unlikely other companies might follow Google's lead and try to change how business is done in China.
"As long as you aren't involved in politics, the media or pornography, the government will leave you alone," said Siva Yam, president of the United States of America-China Chamber of Commerce, which primarily represents U.S. companies in China.