On Tuesday, the world's most famous Internet company ended its four-year liaison with the world's biggest Internet market.

But what fallout Google's decision to close its Chinese search engine will have on other companies doing business in China, as well as on the 400 million Chinese who log on to their computers every morning, remains a matter of much debate.

Foreign firms based in China say Google's two-month confrontation with the authorities has only underscored the difficulties many multinational companies face in maintaining relationships with local authorities here.

This week also saw executives from Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto stand trial in Shanghai, accused of bribery and stealing commercial secrets. The executives pleaded guilty to the charges and face lengthy sentences, in a case which has worried many foreign firms doing business in China.

A survey released this week by the American Chamber of Commerce here said 38 per cent of companies said they felt “unwelcome” in China, up from 26 per cent last year. Inconsistent regulations and laws were cited as their biggest concern.

But with 400 million Internet users, China has the world's biggest Internet market, and most companies say dealing with local difficulties is a small price to pay for a piece of the pie.

One executive at Microsoft, who requested anonymity, said it was unlikely other companies would be influenced by Google's decision.

Microsoft's search-engine Bing, which has so far struggled to establish itself in China, is slated to be one of the beneficiaries of Google's decision to close its Chinese-language website Google.cn.

“It is highly unlikely that other companies will follow Google's example,” echoed Chinese blogger and media commentator Michael Anti. “Most other companies simply will not have the guts to stand up to the government.”

But cynics argue Google's “bravery” was partly inspired by its failure to penetrate the Chinese market, which has been dominated by Chinese search engine Baidu. Analysts say domestic companies like Baidu, whose shares have risen by 50 per cent since Google first announced its decision in January, will have the most to gain from the Google episode.

Beyond bottom-lines, China's ‘netizens' fear that the absence of a substantial foreign presence is unhealthy for the development of the Internet in China, which some analysts say could become increasingly cut-off from the rest of the world.

Baidu's search-engine, for instance, only provides links to Chinese-language websites, unlike Google. And, for subjects considered “sensitive” by the authorities, it generally only provides links to government-approved sources, like the Communist Party's official newspapers.

“I am more and more worried about the openness of the Internet environment here, and of our society's as well,” said Ethan Yang, a student at Peking University. “Information sharing is the essence of the Internet, and censorship is unreasonable. And we know the only reason the government is doing this is because they fear the existence of any voice that speaks out against them.”

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