The decision of the Chinese government to renew Google's licence to operate its website in China is a pragmatic response to what was turning into a political question. Beijing has displayed sagacity in allowing Google to develop some of its operations in the country, a conciliatory approach that has been reciprocated by the company. Under the agreement, Google will abide by the legal restrictions on what can be published by its China website within the mainland, and visitors can continue to access unfiltered results on its Hong Kong website. However, websites that do not meet legal requirements will remain inaccessible, although they may show up in the search results from Hong Kong. Such a solution does not come as a big surprise. Although Google raised a high profile dispute with political overtones just six months ago over online attacks on its databases and issues of censorship and free speech, no one seriously expected it to wind up its China operations. The issue has been speedily resolved, confirming the desire on both sides to pursue a beneficial path.
Everyone is aware that China, with an Internet user base of 384 million, including 346 million broadband users (as of December 2009), is the world's biggest online market. Ignoring it can seriously hurt growth and no one knows this better than Google. Online access on mobile devices is also growing rapidly; eight per cent of Internet users go online only on mobile. All this clearly points to the need for continued, realistic engagement with China on issues of free speech and cyber security, and for business imperatives to be appreciated in context. A prime interest for Google today is promoting its new Android operating system for mobile in China. Plans to popularise cloud computing are also high on its agenda. The prospects for growth are important to handset makers too, as they support the Android platform with new hardware and application software. Now that there appears to be a closure to the row over cyber attacks on Google's databases, the process of resolution of online free speech issues in China can begin. After all, ‘reasonable restrictions' are applied in the west to freedom of expression on the Internet, especially when security concerns and offensive content are involved. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has underscored this in the context of terrorism. Evidently, with positive, less doctrinaire engagement, it should be possible to open more windows to free expression in cyberspace. That can begin with social networking websites that are currently unavailable in China.