Google Faces No Hong Kong Censors After China Retreat

Hong Kong, China - Hong Kong says it won’t help China censor Google Inc., after the search engine provider said it would route mainland users through its site in the city.

Hong Kong respects freedom of information and its free flow, a spokesman for the city’s Information Services Department said yesterday, declining to be identified as a matter of policy. There are no restrictions on access to Web sites, including access to Hong Kong-based Web sites from China, he said.

While China regularly blocks content from Web sites outside its borders, Hong Kong’s reaction illustrates the autonomy it enjoys under the “One Country, Two Systems” policy that guided its 1997 return to Chinese sovereignty. Hong Kong’s constitution, the Basic Law, guarantees freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom and privacy of communication.

The government’s response to Google’s move yesterday “highlights Hong Kong’s advantages,” said David Zweig, a political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “It’s worth reminding people that they can come to Hong Kong because of ‘One Country, Two Systems.”

Thirteen years after the Hong Kong handover, Beijing has done little to meddle in management of the city -- home to Asia’s third-largest stock market by capitalization, 34 billionaires and the world’s third-highest office rents.

News, Rumors

“One of Hong Kong’s key rationales as a financial center is its freedom of information,” said Michael DeGolyer, professor of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. “One reason that fund management is in the city and not in China is freedom of information. If you can’t get either the news or the rumor you’re not going to be able to buy and sell with any accuracy. This is why Hong Kong is still the financial center of China.”

Google decided to direct traffic to the Hong Kong site after a two-month dispute with the Chinese government over censorship. Analysts say China will continue to control content within its borders, blocking content from Hong Kong and beyond.

“It’s very likely that will be blocked at least as aggressively as was and, more likely, probably more aggressively,” said Ben Schachter, an analyst at Broadpoint AmTech Inc. in San Francisco.

Google’s Conscience

So instead of censoring itself, Google is placating its conscience by having China do the filtering, Andy Xie, an independent economist, said in a phone interview.

Given that Apple Daily, a mass circulation Chinese-language newspaper, operates in Hong Kong with an editorial line severely critical of the mainland government, the rerouting of searches is unlikely to prompt a crackdown in the city, Xie said.

“Of course, the Chinese government is unhappy about Google’s decision because of the cost” of censoring increased Web traffic, Xie said.

By late morning yesterday, searches for “Tiananmen” on computers in Shanghai and Beijing could not be displayed, suggesting the government had started limiting access.

Since the People’s Liberation Army entered Hong Kong at midnight on June 30, 1997, the city’s 7 million residents have continued to enjoy freedoms far beyond those of their counterparts across the border in mainland China.

In 2003, the local population even overturned planned restrictions on freedom. After about half a million people marched against anti-subversion legislation, then-Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa withdrew the plan and later resigned.

To be sure, Hong Kong lacks fully democratic elections, a target promised in the Basic Law that Beijing has indicated will not occur before 2020. China has criticized the tactics of legislators seeking a faster pace of progress.

Other things prohibited in China remain legal in Hong Kong.

The Falun Gong spiritual movement, banned in China as an “evil cult,” operates openly in Hong Kong, organizing displays in public places such as the Star Ferry pier publicizing allegations of abuse by the mainland government.

And groups, from Trotskyists demanding full democracy and the departure of Chief Executive Donald Tsang to bar workers denouncing plans to limit indoor smoking, demonstrate freely.