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Google says it wants to re-renter China, less than a year after famously told the world it would leave the country over an attack on the company's infrastructure by Chinese hackers.

Patrick Pichette, the company's chief financial officer, tells The Times that the decision to depart China is a mere "road block" on its mission to bring information to world+dog. "China has 1.2 billion people. For Google to say, ‘We’re going to live on our mission, but not serve 1.2 billion people’ – it just doesn’t work. China wants Google.”

That's, well, debatable. But to make his point, Pichette pointed out that if you visited China in the past two weeks and you searched on "Nobel Peace Prize", there would be no results on the major search engines. "Think of Google's brand now. You're Chinese, you know that's not true, that the Nobel Peace prize has not disappeared from the face of the earth. There lies the issue of brand. There lies the issue of our mission."

Yes, a big part of Google's mission to serve advertising to those 1.2 billion people. But Google's chief financial officer didn't mention this. "You have the right to know who won the Nobel Peace prize this year. For us to actually not have any of these results, it doesn't make sense to filter any more. That's why we took the stance we took."

On January 12, 2010, Google announced that Chinese hackers had stolen unspecified intellectual property from the company's internal systems, and it said evidence indicated that "a primary motive" of the attacks was to gain access to the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Due to the attack - and what the company described as other, routine attacks on the Gmail accounts of such activists - Google said it would stop censoring search results in China.

Roughly two months later, after talks with Chinese government, Google shut down its Chinese search engine, Google.cn, and redirected visitors to its Hong-Kong-based engine, Google.com.hk, where it provides uncensored search results in simplified Chinese. But the Chinese government didn't like the automatic redirects, so now Google is merely advising visitors to search on the Hong Kong site.

According to Robin Li — the chairman and chief executive of the native Chinese search engine Baidu — his service is now used by 99 per cent of the country's internet users. That's about 420 million people, or roughly one third of the country's population. "We have very high coverage," Li said this fall. "We actually answer more queries in China than any other search engine in any other market."

An independent report indicates that Baidu has 73 per cent of the market, while Google commands 21.6 per cent. And the company's advertising share is a mere 8.9 per cent.

Pichette says that at the moment, the conditions aren't right for a Google return to China. But this was merely a reference "the great firewall of China" – i.e. its censorship policy. Li said Google didn't exactly rule the roost in China in part because it didn't understand the country. "China is a very different market," he said. "It is a large and growing market. The market conditions change every day. If you're not close to that market, it's very difficult for you to evolve with market demand." ®

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