Business

What Gmail hack? China spins news of Google threat

Chinese state media has spun Google’s threat to leave China as a purely commercial move, as authorities there apparently work to limit discussion of human rights issues raised by Google.

Google last week said it had been hit by cyberattacks from China largely aimed at accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human right activists, and that the company might close down its China offices partly as a result. In its announcement, the first of its type from a major U.S. Internet company operating in China, Google said other reasons for its decision included growing attempts to limit free speech online.

But while many Western news reports on Google’s move have focused on those politically sensitive statements, few Chinese reports have cited them at all. Most reports that do mention the attack on Gmail have done so without elaborating, leaving out details that could incense Chinese authorities if seen in print.

“Several days after the Google announcement, there seem to be fewer Google-related posts and editorials in China that include across-the-bow shots at Internet censorship,” David Bandurski, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong, wrote in a blog post on Sunday. “This might suggest, although it is difficult to tell, that there have been directives from the propaganda department telling editors to dial it back.”

Chinese journalists and news editors can face punishment by authorities for publishing articles on sensitive political topics. They are also sometimes ordered not to write on sensitive issues or to post only official newswire stories on them.

China’s state-run media has largely dismissed the political concerns raised in Google’s statement. An op-ed in the official newspaper China Daily slammed Google’s motto of “do no evil” as hypocritical and suggested the company may be using it as a cover to exit the country for business reasons. A report on Google’s move by Xinhua, the state news agency, said it was “inappropriate to play up the issue, or turn it into a political one.”

The Xinhua piece mentioned the cyberattacks on Google but did not name Gmail or human rights activists as their target. It called cyberattacks common and said it was “far-fetched” to blame China for them, though Google has not done so.

A Google spokeswoman said the company’s motivation for its announcement was not financial. “While our revenues from China are really immaterial, we just had our best ever quarter,” the spokeswoman said in an e-mail. “That revenue, incidentally, is primarily from the export sector—in other words Chinese companies advertising internationally on Google.”

Reports about Google on privately run Chinese news sites have also said little about limits on free speech or the alleged cyberattacks on rights activists. Authorities may have ordered news portals to play down the rights issues, but the portals could also be censoring themselves, said Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of the blog Danwei.org. Google became one of the most discussed topics on local portal Sina’s microblog service within hours of the U.S. company’s announcement last week, but Sina quickly deleted it from the list, said Goldkorn.

“The portals and Chinese Web sites themselves, they’re huge on self-censorship,” said Golkdkorn. “People know this is a sensitive thing.”

China’s foreign ministry last week responded to Google’s move by saying the Chinese Internet was open and that foreign Internet companies were welcome to do business in China according to the law.

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