Leaked documents to one media outlet suggests Google has been developing a censored version of its search engine dubbed "Dragonfly", so the company can return its services to one of the world's largest markets to compete with Baidu, which now leads in Chinese search.
Reports of Google's possible re-entry spurred a strong reaction on Chinese social media outlets on Wednesday evening, including debates over the merits of a censored search engine versus accessing the USA version through illegal virtual private networks.
The move would mark an abrupt about-face by the Alphabet Inc. unit and a win for China's communist government, which suppresses free speech online.
The news emerged in a piece from The Intercept, which obtained documents about an internal Google project to relaunch a search service in mainland China, complete with government censorship. Last year, Google unveiled plans to open a research centre in China focused on artificial intelligence.
Amnesty International urged Google to "change course".
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The rising tensions have weighed on Chinese stock and currency markets, with the Chinese yuan falling against the dollar. China received 103.4 million cubic feet of LNG from the US last year, the Energy Information Administration says.
"Google is waking up to smell the coffee", said Andy Mok, founder and president of Beijing-based consultancy Red Pagoda Resources LLC. It will set a awful precedent for many other companies who are still trying to do business in China while maintaining the principles of not succumbing to China's censorship.
The final version could be launched in the next six to nine months, pending Chinese official's approval. "But we don't comment on speculation about future plans", Google said in a statement.
It said the BBC News website and Wikipedia would be among those blocked. In a congressional hearing that year on the activities of US technology companies in China, Google was called a "functionary of the Chinese government". Sources indicate that some Google employees have also claimed that the escalating trade war between the US and China means that approval for the finalization of this project won't necessarily be granted.
The platform will "blacklist sensitive queries", the report claimed, preventing access to websites now blocked by the so-called Great Firewall.
The benefits for Google are apparent - China has 750 million internet users, 95 percent of all web searches are done on mobile phones and 80 percent of all mobile devices in China are Android. Over the years, rumors of the Google Play Store returning to China have emerged multiple times, only to come to nothing in the end. What is to stop Facebook and Twitter to approach the Chinese government again, and agreeing to send an error message every time one tries to tweet about, or write a post about an activist like Liu Xiaobo?