Chinese Official Calls Chinese Internet "Open" in Response to Google Issue

January 28, 2010

Google announced in mid-January 2010 that it would no longer censor its Chinese search engine. In response, the Chinese government said that Google must comply with Chinese laws and that the Internet in China is "open." Chinese censorship of the Internet, which prevents its citizens from accessing political and religious information that the Chinese government and Communist Party deem too sensitive for public consumption, violates international standards for free expression. The Google case also has raised the question whether Internet censorship in China constitutes trade protectionism.

The Chinese government responded to Google's unwillingness to continue censoring results on its Chinese search engine by saying that Google must comply with Chinese laws and that the Internet in China is "open." At a regularly scheduled press conference on January 19, 2010, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu said, "I wish to stress that the Internet in China is open and China supervises the Internet according to law." Ma added: "Foreign-invested enterprises in China should abide by China's laws and regulations, respect the interests, culture and traditions of the general public, and assume the corresponding social responsibilities. Google is no exception." Ma's comments came in response to a question about Google's January 12 statement saying that Google and the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists had been subject to a cyber attack originating from China. Google did not say the Chinese government was responsible for the attack. The January 12 statement said that Google was reviewing its business operations in China and that it would no longer censor results on, the search engine it created for the Chinese market:

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered―combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web―have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all.

Chinese laws and regulations place a legal burden on Internet companies to monitor content on the Web and censor information deemed unacceptable by the government. The 2000 Measures for the Administration of Internet Information Services prohibit providers of Internet information services from disseminating content that falls into any one of a number of vaguely worded categories, including information "harming the honor or the interests of the nation," "spreading rumors," or "disrupting national policies on religion" (Article 15). Companies that fail to remove such information on their Web sites risk a government order to close (Article 23). Thus, providers of Internet content and services in China routinely filter politically sensitive information from searches on topics such as the 1989 Tiananmen protests, Falun Gong, Tibet, Xinjiang, China's leaders, and Charter 08. (See pp. 60–61 of the CECC 2009 Annual Report.) In August 2009, for example, and the domestic search engine Baidu reportedly blocked searches for Xu Zhiyong, the law professor and rights defender who had been detained on charges of tax evasion, according to an August 19, 2009, China Daily article.

The Chinese government’s regulation of the Internet and other electronic communications violates international standards for free expression. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees the right to "seek, receive and impart" information "of all kinds, regardless of frontiers," through any media of one's choice. Article 19 permits restrictions on this freedom, provided they are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect the rights or reputations of others, national security, public order, or public health or morals. Chinese government practices exceed these allowances, however, because their extensive censorship of the Internet and cell phones is not limited to the removal of content such as pornography, spam, or content deemed to violate intellectual property rights, but also political and religious content the government and Communist Party deem to be politically sensitive.

Background on Google in China and the Issue of Trade Protectionism

Google has said previously that its decision to create a local presence in China through, which it began in January 2006, was prompted by difficulty Chinese users encountered accessing its site which it operated outside of China―difficulty that in part was due to Internet service providers located in China censoring the Internet as mandated by Chinese government laws and policies. As explained in a prepared statement from Elliot Schrage, Google Vice President of Global Communications and Public Affairs, before a February 2006 hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affair Committee, in 2000 Google originally began with a Chinese language-version of but discovered that service to that site for Chinese users was "slow and unreliable." Schrage said:

The cause of the slowness and unreliability appears to be, in large measure, the extensive filtering performed by China's licensed Internet Service Providers (ISPs). China's laws, regulations, and policies against illegal information apply not only to Internet content providers, but also to the ISPs. China has nine licensed international gateway data carriers, and many hundreds of smaller local ISPs. Each ISP is legally obligated to implement its own filtering mechanisms, leading to diverse and sometimes inconsistent outcomes across the network at any given moment. For example, some of Google's services appear to be unavailable to Chinese users nearly always, including Google News....

According to Schrage's 2006 prepared statement, the company decided that "a speedy, reliable service will increase overall access to information for Chinese Internet users." To address censorship concerns, Google said that its service would notify users when information had been removed from a search result. One observer has noted that Google censored its search results less thoroughly than Baidu censored its results; Baidu is a domestic Chinese company that holds more than twice the market share of Google, according to a January 18, 2010, Washington Post article. That article quoted Rebecca MacKinnon, Open Society fellow and co-founder of, as saying "consistently, Baidu has censored politically sensitive search results much more thoroughly than"

Google had been under particular fire from the Chinese government over the past year. In June 2009, Chinese officials ordered Google to stop linking to sites that officials said contained pornographic content, according to a June 19 Xinhua article. In March 2009, Google reported that its YouTube site was being blocked in China after a video purportedly showing Chinese police beating Tibetans appeared on the site, according to a March 24 New York Times article.

Some international observers question whether China's Internet censorship also amounts to trade protectionism. In a January 6, 2010, op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Fredrik Erixon and Hosuk Lee-Mayiyama, director and visiting fellow, respectively, of the European Centre for International Political Economy in Brussels, said:

Online censorship has become a tool of industrial policy, effectively discriminating against foreign suppliers. The Chinese search engine Baidu has been untouched by the recent crackdown, despite producing similar search results to the blocked Google and Bing Web sites. There also have been reports that users entering Google's address in their browsers have been automatically rerouted to Baidu. Licensing requirements for Web sites help Beijing control the market share of companies like smaller private-sector travel agents or Internet-telephony companies like Skype that compete with larger Chinese companies with strong relationships to Beijing.

For more information on Internet censorship in China, see Access to Information—Censorship of the Internet and Cell Phones starting on p. 58 of Section II—Freedom of Expression in the CECC 2009 Annual Report. For background on Google's decision to create a local presence in China and the issue of trade protectionism raised by Google's recent move, click on "more" below.