Google's threat to pull out of China over concerns about censorship and security should not affect ties with the United States, a top Chinese official said Thursday, seeking to contain the government's dispute with the Internet giant.
The comment from Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei came just hours before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was scheduled to deliver a speech in Washington on Internet freedom.
"The Google case should not be linked with relations between the two governments and countries; otherwise, it's an over-interpretation," He told a news conference, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
The Xinhua report did not mention censorship, instead referring to Google's "disagreements with government policies."
Google said on Jan. 12 that it will remain in China only if the government relents on rules requiring the censorship of content the ruling communist party considers subversive. The ultimatum came after Google said it uncovered a computer attack that tried to plunder its software coding and the e-mail accounts of human rights activists protesting Chinese policies.
The United States has said it will lodge a formal complaint to Beijing on the alleged hacking attacks.
Clinton was to address the importance of unrestricted Internet in her speech. She was also expected to call on the Chinese government to provide an explanation for the cyber attack and say that the right to seek information freely is a basic human right.
China is home to the world's largest online population of 382 million people but the government has drawn international criticism for its restrictions on Internet freedom — sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are blocked — and sophisticated cyber spying operations.
Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Beijing's Renmin University, said He's remarks reflect the desire of the top Chinese leadership to keep the Google dispute confined to the business arena.
"If this becomes a bigger issue, then it will affect China's image," he said. "Google in China should follow government regulations, but those regulations can be discussed. They shouldn't have a public showdown."
A company spokeswoman in Beijing said Google had no comment on He's remark.
So far, reports in China's state-run media have glossed over Google's complaints of coding theft and e-mail hacking, instead calling the matter a business dispute.
Reports have portrayed Google as being upset over several issues: being hacked; competition from top Chinese search engine baidu.com; and lawsuits it is facing from Chinese writers who are angry that their works were scanned into Google's digital library.
State media have also accused Google of playing politics. They say the company is being driven out by a lack of business success and is trying to stir up support from China's predominantly young Internet users.
Google.cn, set up in 2005, has a 35 percent market share, compared to Baidu's 60 percent.
The Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that the search giant must obey China's laws and traditions, suggesting it was giving no ground in talks with the company.
"Foreign enterprises in China need to adhere to China's laws and regulations, respect the interests of the general public and cultural traditions and shoulder corresponding responsibilities. Google is no exception," ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu told a news briefing.
But there have already been aftershocks from Google's announcement. On Tuesday, Google postponed the launch of two mobile phones in China, adding to the potential commercial fallout from the dispute with Beijing.
The delay affects separate phones made by Motorola and Samsung. The handsets are both powered by Android, a mobile operating software system developed by Google. Both phones were scheduled to debut this week, with China Unicom Ltd. serving as the carrier.
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