This afternoon, Google made its expected announcement on the future of operations in China. The background, of course, is that Google had said recently that it would no longer censor search results in China, which China said put the company in violation of Chinese laws. Which brings us to today. In its announcement, Google said that traffic from within mainland China to Google.cn, the local Google homepage, will redirect from now on to Google.com/hk, the Hong Kong iteration of Google search. Google said it will continue its R&D operations in China (which leaves open the possibility of development in mobile, OS, etc.).
At first read, you have to wonder whether China is going to be placated by what is a thinly veiled, if clever, manipulation that doesn't address the underlying censorship issue that China has been raging about. While the site that Chinese people will see is billed as the Hong Kong version of Google, it's actually not. Not quite. Google says that what visitors to Google.com/hk will get if they come from, say, Shenzhen, will actually be a version of (uncensored) Google that is customized for mainland Chinese, though hosted in Hong Kong. Presumably Google will use geo-IP targeting to redirect people to one of the two Google.com/hk's, based on their location. Google describes the new mainland version of Google.com/hk as a service "specifically designed for users in mainland China and delivered via our servers in Hong Kong." From a Web-engineering perspective, it's a simple redirect. From a policy perspective, it's pretty obviously an end run around the spirit of the Chinese restrictions.
One big question now is whether China buys it. They could look at the new Google.com/hk and judge it to still be in violation of their rules. They could then attempt to block it from within mainland China. Or they could accept this new redirect arrangement as good enough, and move on. I'd bet on the former, but who knows. Also, someone with greater knowledge of the China/Hong Kong relationship than me will have to explore the question of what sort of position this new framework puts Hong Kong in. For one thing, I'm curious as to whether Google asked them.
-- Nancy Scola