When the online fantasy game "World of Warcraft" was yanked from China last year because of a bureaucratic turf battle, the millions of Chinese players were outraged.
An online chat session to discuss the problem attracted 32,000 indignant gamers. Tens of thousands filed complaints with China's consumer rights agency — in one day. An Internet addiction expert who defended the shutdown on national television found himself bombarded with angry phone calls and death threats.
But there's been little evidence of similar popular protest since online giant Google said it might shut down its google.cn search engine and cease operations in China. In fact, many of the country's 384 million Internet users appear to greet the news with little more a shrug.
"If Google leaves China, we'll lose one search engine. But we still have other choices," said 28-year-old Deng Zhiluo, who works in marketing in Beijing. He said while Google's search results are more "international," most of what he wants can be found on Chinese competitor Baidu. "For locals, Baidu is enough."
The indifference of many Chinese points to a telling challenge for Google in the world's most populous Internet market. The Chinese Internet world is youthful, with people under 30 making up 61.5 percent of the online population. While the company is drawing kudos in the U.S. and elsewhere for battling China's Internet censorship, the cause isn't generating much popular support among China's wired teens and 20-somethings.
"It's like in the U.S. saying, 'You can't use Yahoo search anymore,'" said T.R. Harrington, CEO of Shanghai-based Darwin Marketing, which specializes in China's search engines. "What would people say? 'So what? I'll use Google more, and I'll try Bing and I might try a few other ones ... I don't care.'"
Some Chinese do admire Google's stand against censorship. After the Mountain View, California-based company threatened three weeks ago to shut down its search engine citing cyberattacks from China, a few dozen Chinese laid flowers outside Google's Beijing headquarters. A few hundred joined a "Don't Go Google" Web site, which has since been shut down for unknown reasons.
Beijing may yet be interested in seeking an accommodation. Blocking Google sites could encourage more Chinese to seek ways of getting around Internet controls. That's what happened last year when two government agencies prohibited Chinese sites from offering World of Warcraft while they battled over the right to regulate the lucrative online game. Local stores started selling access cards that allowed Chinese fans to play the game on Taiwanese servers.
Yet the trouble Google is having generating support among Chinese underscores how successful the communist government's control of information is. While authorities have set up an extensive network of Internet filters, blockades and monitoring — dubbed the "Great Firewall of China" — that's only part of the picture. China's permissible Internet universe is flooded with choice, with 3.2 million registered Web sites offering news coverage and diversions from shopping to music downloads.
Chinese in their teens and 20s are known for their consumerism and disdain for politics. Most just aren't interested in scaling the "Great Firewall," according to Kaiser Kuo, a Beijing-based technology analyst. Their favorite online activities: listening to music, chatting with friends and playing video games.
For many sites blocked by the government — including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter — there are readily available government-approved Chinese substitutes: Youku and Tudou for videos, Kaixinwang and Renren for social networking. Sina.com, the largest Internet portal, runs a Twitter-like microblogging site.
Baidu is known for being better at Chinese-language searches and searching Chinese sites. The Nasdaq-listed company runs a popular message board, online encyclopedia and vast mp3 library. Baidu has 58.4 percent of China's search engine market, compared with Google's 35 percent, according to Analysys International, a Beijing research firm.
Also hurting Google is the official media's ability to shape public opinion. Reports in state-run media, the only media there is in China, have glossed over Google's allegations about China-based hacking attacks. Many young Chinese believe Google wants to leave because it's being drubbed by Baidu.
State media recently hardened its stance, accusing the U.S. government of being behind the dispute U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on China to investigate the cyberintrusions that led to Google's threat to pull out.
"Google's image is becoming more and more negative," said Rao Jin, an online entrepreneur who recently launched google-liar.com. "Google and the CIA definitely have links."
Rao's views may sound extreme, but the 25-year-old has been successful in tapping popular sentiment in China. He is the founder of anti-cnn.com, launched during ethnic rioting in Tibet in March 2008 and aimed at exposing alleged bias in Western media reports. It still receives 1 million page views a day.
Some of the anti-Google articles Rao posted on google-liar.com were in fact found with the help of Google, and he and his friends use the company's Gmail e-mail service. But they are preparing to switch to a Chinese e-mail provider, he said.
"If Google left, the world would keep turning. ... It actually wouldn't have a big impact on China," he said. "But if Google left, it would have a big impact on itself."
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