BEIJING (Reuters) – Google Inc will not be treated as an exception to China’s demand foreign companies obey its laws, the Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday, a week after the world’s largest search engine warned it could pull out of China.
Google said last week it and other companies were targets of sophisticated cyber-spying from China that also went after Chinese dissidents. It also said it no longer wants to censor its Chinese Google.cn search site and wants talks with Beijing about offering a legal, unfiltered Chinese site.
The Internet dispute could stoke tensions between China and the United States, already at odds over the value of the yuan currency, trade quarrels, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and climate change policy.
Chinese officials have so far publicly fended off Google’s complaints and not openly flagged any talks with the world’s biggest Internet search company, which opened its Chinese-language search site in 2006.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu pressed the company a little more on Tuesday in comments that suggested scant room for giving way to Google’s demands.
“Foreign firms in China should respect China’s laws and regulations, and respect China’s public customs and traditions, and assume the corresponding social responsibilities, and of course Google is no exception,” Ma told a regular briefing.
Ma did not mention censorship as being among those responsibilities, but other Chinese officials have.
Until now, the Foreign Ministry has avoided mentioning Google’s name in comments on the dispute that has also drawn Washington into demanding an explanation from Beijing.
But Ma, like other Chinese officials, avoided directly hitting back at the U.S.
When asked again about Google’s complaint that it had been hacked from within China, Ma said Chinese companies have also been hacked.
“China is the biggest victim of hacking,” Ma said, adding that eight out of 10 personal computers in China connected to the Internet had been hacked. This figure apparently included many computers infected with viruses spread online.
Other countries are also being drawn into the dispute.
India’s national security adviser M.K. Narayanan told the London-based Times newspaper on Tuesday that his and other Indian government offices had been the target of hacker attacks originating from China on December 15, coinciding with attacks on Google and the other firms.
“There is no basis at all for this claim,” Ma said.
Indian commerce and industry minister Anand Sharma declined to comment on the report.
He said he had not brought up the issue with China’s Commerce Minister when they met in Beijing on Tuesday.
Until now, the Chinese government had been trying to frame the dispute with Google as a commercial matter, perhaps because officials want to avoid having the dispute become a referendum on Internet censorship policies among Chinese liberals and foreign companies operating in China. On Thursday, He Yafei, a vice foreign minister, had said the Google dispute should not be “over-interpreted” or linked to the bilateral relationship with the United States, according to Xinhua, the official state news agency.
But in the aftermath of Mrs. Clinton’s speech, that attitude could be changing. Mrs. Clinton pointedly said that “a new information curtain is descending across much of the world” and identified China as one of a handful of countries that had stepped up Internet censorship in the past year. (Starting in late 2008, the Chinese government shut down thousands of Web sites under the pretext of an antipornography campaign.) She also praised American companies such as Google that are “making the issue of Internet and information freedom a greater consideration in their business decisions.”