BEIJING – Google's threat to pull out of China over concerns about censorship and security should not affect ties with the United States, a top Chinese official said Thursday, seeking to contain the government's dispute with the Internet giant.
The comment from Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei came just hours before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a speech in Washington on Internet freedom, saying that censoring news and information flows is bad for economic growth and calling for American companies to resist pressure to accept censorship.
"The Google case should not be linked with relations between the two governments and countries; otherwise, it's an over-interpretation," He told a news conference, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
The Xinhua report did not mention censorship, instead referring to Google's "disagreements with government policies."
Google said on Jan. 12 that it will remain in China only if the government relents on rules requiring the censorship of content the ruling communist party considers subversive. The ultimatum came after Google said it uncovered a computer attack that tried to plunder its software coding and the e-mail accounts of human rights activists protesting Chinese policies.
The United States has said it will lodge a formal complaint to Beijing on the alleged hacking attacks.
In a wide-ranging speech about Internet freedom and its place in U.S. foreign policy, Clinton urged China to investigate cyber intrusions and challenged Beijing to openly publish its findings.
"Countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of Internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century," she said, adding the U.S. and China "have different views on this issue, and we intend to address those differences candidly and consistently."
Clinton spoke broadly about the connection between information freedom and international business.
"Countries that censor news and information must recognize that, from an economic standpoint, there is no distinction between censoring political speech and commercial speech," she said. "If businesses in your nation are denied access to either type of information, it will inevitably reduce growth."
She cited China as among a number of countries where there has been "a spike in threats to the free flow of information" over the past year. She also named Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Egypt and Vietnam.
"Increasingly, U.S. companies are making the issue of information freedom a greater consideration in their business decisions," she added. "I hope that their competitors and foreign governments will pay close attention to this trend.
Clinton challenged corporations worldwide to stand up against Internet censorship.
"Censorship should not be in any way accepted by any company from anywhere," she said. "And in America, American companies need to make a principled stand. This needs to be part of our national brand."
China is home to the world's largest online population of 382 million people but the government has drawn international criticism for its restrictions on Internet freedom — sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are blocked — and sophisticated cyber spying operations.
Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Beijing's Renmin University, said He's remarks reflect the desire of the top Chinese leadership to keep the Google dispute confined to the business arena.
"If this becomes a bigger issue, then it will affect China's image," he said. "Google in China should follow government regulations, but those regulations can be discussed. They shouldn't have a public showdown."
A company spokeswoman in Beijing said Google had no comment on He's remark.
So far, reports in China's state-run media have glossed over Google's complaints of coding theft and e-mail hacking, instead calling the matter a business dispute.
Reports have portrayed Google as being upset over several issues: being hacked; competition from top Chinese search engine baidu.com; and lawsuits it is facing from Chinese writers who are angry that their works were scanned into Google's digital library.
State media have also accused Google of playing politics. They say the company is being driven out by a lack of business success and is trying to stir up support from China's predominantly young Internet users.
Google.cn, set up in 2005, has a 35 percent market share, compared to Baidu's 60 percent.
The Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that the search giant must obey China's laws and traditions, suggesting it was giving no ground in talks with the company.
"Foreign enterprises in China need to adhere to China's laws and regulations, respect the interests of the general public and cultural traditions and shoulder corresponding responsibilities. Google is no exception," ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu told a news briefing.
But there have already been aftershocks from Google's announcement. On Tuesday, Google postponed the launch of two mobile phones in China, adding to the potential commercial fallout from the dispute with Beijing.
The delay affects separate phones made by Motorola and Samsung. The handsets are both powered by Android, a mobile operating software system developed by Google. Both phones were scheduled to debut this week, with China Unicom Ltd. serving as the carrier.