China's insomniac twitterati were on fire this afternoon U.S. time, powered no doubt by much caffeine and sugar in the the wee hours of the morning in China. Half an hour before Google's David Drummond posted his announcement that Google.cn is now effectively operating from Google.com.hk, Guangzhou-based open source programmer @LEMONed broke the news that google.cn was being redirected to the Hong Kong service. Reacting to the news, @wentommy quipped: "One Google, One World; One China, No Google."
As of now (still early morning in Beijing), Google.com.hk is accessible from mainland China although specific search results for sensitive terms result in a browser error - or in other words, are blocked. Same as it's always been for sensitive searches on Google.com from inside mainland China. This is network filtering and would happen automatically as part of the "great firewall" Internet filtering system.
The ball is now in the Chinese government's court in two ways:
1) Whether they will block all of google.com.hk, which until now has not been blocked. If they are smart they will just leave the situation as is and stop drawing media attention to their censorship practices. The longer this high profile fracas goes on, the greater Chinese Internet users awareness will be about the lengths to which their government goes to blinker their knowledge of the world. That may inspire more people to start learning how to use circumvention tools for getting around the censorship. Chinese censorship is only effective if a large percentage of the population isn't very conscious of what they're missing. As I like to explain it: if you're born with tunnel vision you assume it's normal until somehow you're made aware that life without tunnel vision is both possible and much better. The longer this story remains in the headlines, the more people will become conscious of their tunnel vision and think about ways to eliminate it.
2) Whether they allow Google to retain its ad sales and R&D businesses in China. Google has now removed the part of the business that might have defied Chinese law, relocating it to a jurisdiction where websites are not required to censor political speech. The remaining parts of Google's business should be able to operate within the confines of Chinese law without much problem. If the Chinese government is smart, they will declare victory for having forced Google to back down and remove its potentially illegal operation from their jurisdiction. They should say they welcome all foreign law-abiding businesses and look forward to working with Google as long as it abides by Chinese law. If they punish Google further for events of the past few months, that will further feed the anxiety of a foreign business community who have already been complaining of unfair and politicized treatment, and it will cause the U.S.-China business and trade relationship to deteriorate further in ways that I would think are not in China's interest - certainly not in the Chinese people's interest.
As it so happens, I interviewed David Drummond on December 15th for the Index on Censorship, but due to the magazine's long production time they're just publishing it now, with an update that we did with him via e-mail after the January 12th announcement. They've posted it online today. I think a lot of it remains very relevant.
UPDATE1: For journalists trying to get their heads around this story Andrew Lih has an excellent primer on the basic facts and background you need to know.
UPDATE2: The Chinese government is reacting in a knee-jerk and counterproductive manner which implies that they think they should have jurisdiction over websites hosted on computer servers physically beyond their borders, and which implies disrespect for the Hong Kong Basic Law to which the CCP made a clear commitment. See Reuters for the text of the Chinese official comments on Google.
ADDENDUM: Here's the post I wrote in 2006 when Google went into China with Google.cn: Google in China: degrees of evil final conclusion: "At the end of the day, this compromise puts Google a little lower on the evil scale than many other internet companies in China. But is this compromise something Google should be proud of? No. They have put a foot further into the mud. Now let's see whether they get sucked in deeper or whether they end up holding their ground."