Google's threat to pull out of China over censorship is a rare display of defiance in a system where foreign companies have long accepted intrusive controls to gain access to a huge and growing market.

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A Chinese Google user lays flowers outside Google China headquarters in Beijing on Wednesday. ((Vincent Thian/Associated Press))

Dismayed by the prospect of a China without Google, visitors left flowers at its Beijing headquarters Wednesday as websites buzzed with words of support and appeals to stay.

"I felt it's a pity and hope it will not withdraw from the Chinese market," said a man who left flowers at the building in the high-tech Haidian district and would give only his surname, Chang.

"Google played a key role in the growth of our generation. The control (of the internet) is excessive."

In industries from automaking to fast food, companies have been forced to allow communist authorities to influence — and sometimes dictate — their choice of local partners, where to operate and what products to sell.

Web companies have endured criticism for co-operating with a communist system that tightly controls information. Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp. and others have acceded to pressure to block access to politically sensitive material.

Media face challenges

"The internet is like media, and the media are under tight government control, so that poses additional challenges for foreign internet companies compared with, say, manufacturers of TV sets, mobile phones or autos," said Edward Yu, president of Analysys International, an internet research firm in Beijing.

Google's decision even to talk publicly was rare in a system where Chinese officials react angrily to criticism. Officials have wide regulatory discretion and companies avoid saying anything that might prompt retaliation.

China's Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology did not respond to requests for comment, but the state Xinhua News Agency cited an unidentified official as saying the government was seeking more information from Google.

Phone calls to Google spokespeople in Beijing and Hong Kong were not answered.

Comments left on Chinese Internet bulletin boards praised Google's stance and appealed to the Mountainview, Calif.-based search giant not to leave.

"Google is a great soldier of freedom. You don't bend to the devils," said a note on the site Tianya.cn.

A posting on www.mop.com pleaded, "Google please don't go. We can't let you go. Real man, we support you."

Support emerges

A photo on a Chinese website showed a visitor outside the Google building bowing in a traditional gesture of respect.

China has the world's most populous internet market, with 338 million people online as of June and foreign internet companies eager for a share of that.

But despite risking damage to their reputations by co-operating with the government, they have struggled to make headway against intense competition from Chinese rivals. Yahoo, eBay Inc. and others have given up and turned over control of their China operations to local partners.

Google is the last global internet company to manage its own China arm.

Google trails local competitor Baidu Inc. but has gained market share at the expense of smaller competitors. Google had 31.8 per cent of search revenues in 2009, versus 60.9 per cent for Baidu, according to Analysys.

Google created its China-based Google.cn site in 2006, agreeing to censor results by excluding sites to which access was blocked by government filters, popularly known as the Great Firewall of China.

Despite that co-operation, Beijing accused Google last year of spreading pornography and access to the site was temporarily blocked. The company's video site, YouTube.com, is unavailable to users in China.

Google said Tuesday it would stop censoring search results on Google.cn. That would allow users to find politically sensitive photos and websites abroad, though downloading them might still be barred by government filters.

It also said it had discovered that computer hackers had tricked human-rights activists into exposing their email accounts to outsiders.

On Wednesday, Google.cn said its top search term of the day was "Tiananmen," possibly due to web surfers looking for material on the government's violent crackdown on 1989 pro-democracy protests. The No. 2 search topic was "Google leaving China."

Google.cn appeared to be still censoring results. A search for the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement returned a message saying the browser could not open the page. A notice on the site says some results were deleted in line with regulations.

Google managers told employees to go home and they did not know whether to come back Thursday, said an employee who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to talk to reporters.