Google News Hong Kong

Google Inc.'s partial withdrawal from the China market brought swift condemnation from the government Tuesday while leaving Chinese Web surfers to wonder whether they would be able to access a new offshore search engine site or be blocked by censors.

Google's decision to move most of its China-based search functions to Hong Kong opened a new phase in a two-month-long fracas pitting the world's most powerful Internet company against a government that tightly restricts the Web in the planet's most populous market.

A few Chinese passers-by laid flowers or chocolates on the large metal "Google" sign outside the company's office building in northern Beijing. Many Chinese felt caught in the middle, admiring Google for taking a stand against censorship but wondering whether the government might further punish the company.

"I don't know what the Chinese government will do to Google next, " said Zhou Shuguang, a well-known blogger who uses the online name "Zuola." "But I welcome the move and support Google because an uncensored search engine is something that I need."

After threatening to quit China over cyberattacks and legally required self-censorship, Google announced early Tuesday Beijing time that its Chinese search engine, google.cn, would automatically redirect queries to its service in Hong Kong, where Google is not legally required to censor searches.

The shift did not mean, however, that Chinese were suddenly allowed unfettered access to everything on the Internet. Chinese government Web filters - collectively known as the Great Firewall - automatically weed out anything considered pornographic or politically sensitive. The move, in effect, shifts the responsibility for censoring from Google to the communist government.

Beijing responded swiftly, testily declaring that Google violated commitments it made to abide by China's censorship rules when it entered the China market in 2006.

"This is totally wrong. We're uncompromisingly opposed to the politicization of commercial issues, and express our discontent and indignation to Google for its unreasonable accusations and conducts, " an official with the Internet bureau of the State Council Information Office, China's Cabinet, was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency.

The withdrawal of its search engine makes Google the latest foreign Internet company to founder in a China market that is heavily regulated and prone to particular consumer tastes. Companies such as Yahoo, eBay and Microsoft's MSN instant messaging service have never gained the traction in the China market that their homegrown rivals have.

Google's move, however, marks only a partial retreat. It's leaving behind a research and sales division. Its map services and a free, advertiser-supported music portal still have their servers in the mainland, and its Gmail e-mail service remains available too.

"It's a balancing act. They are trying to leave but not leave, stay but not stay, " said Duncan Clark, managing director of BDA China Ltd., a technology market research firm.

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