Google's recent restoration of Google.cn may have helped the company secure a renewal of its Internet Content Provider (ICP) license in China, but the search site provides precious few search services to users.
Google.cn, which since March had automatically redirected visitors to the company's uncensored Hong Kong site, regained its landing page last week.
While it lets users click over to the Hong Kong site manually, Google.cn itself only allows users to perform product and music searches, and use the company's translation service.
It's Google's decision to provide the limited services it does on the China site, because those are the only ones it can currently offer without having to censor search results, according to a source familiar with the situation.
That way, Google attempts to strike a balance between the requirements of the Chinese government and the company's stated policy of not censoring results on Google.cn, said this person, who requested anonymity.
Thus, visitors to Google.cn are greeted with a search page that lets them type general Web queries in the search box, but when they hit the "search" button, they are taken to the Hong Kong site, where the query is resolved. There is also a prominent link to go directly to the Hong Kong site without having to enter anything into the search box.
Users can also use the specialty music and product search engines on the Google.cn domain without getting redirected anywhere, as well as the online translation service.
The Chinese government didn't require that Google stop offering general Web search on Google.cn in order to renew the license, only that Google shut down the automatic redirect to the Hong Kong site, the source said.
The spat dates back to January of this year, when Google stunned the world with news that a malicious hack attack originating in China in December had compromised some of its systems and targeted the e-mail accounts of defenders of human rights in China.
At the time, Google said that in response it would stop censoring search results on Google.cn, even if it meant running afoul of Chinese government requirements and having to shut down its operations in the country.
In March, Google acted on its decision, implementing the Google.cn automatic redirect to the Hong Kong site, saying that it believed this provided a way for the company to make good on its no-censorship promise while complying with Chinese regulations.
However, when it came time last month for China to review Google's application for ICP renewal, the government specifically pointed at the automatic Hong Kong site redirect as a potential problem for approving the license.
Google complied, re-instating the Google.cn page last week, albeit with a much more limited set of services, and on Friday the Chinese government granted the ICP license renewal.
"We are very pleased that the government has renewed our ICP license and we look forward to continuing to provide web search and local products to our users in China," Google said in a statement.
Seeing the situation in a broader scope, Google has emerged from the controversy in a good position that may allow it to reap big rewards years from now in China, according to Ben Sargent, an analyst with market research company Common Sense Advisory.
The granting of the license renewal results from a tactical compromise that apparently met the Chinese government's requirements and lets Google accomplish its mission of staying in China without changing or violating its mission, he said.
If it's later revealed that Google made other concessions to the government, it could be embarrassed. But if the company got its license back simply by conceding to an extra click to access the Hong Kong site, then it has proved a skillful negotiator, Sargent said.
The battle isn't over, and Google is looking at anywhere between five and 10 more years of conflicts over privacy and censorship issues in China, he said.
But by keeping its presence in China, Google can open markets and build goodwill among the emerging information-consuming population of the country. "Long term, Google will be in China in a big way," he said.
"Ultimately, the Chinese government will continue to focus on Google until the battle shifts to other technologies and other issues. But China won't lose Google, and Google won't lose China," Sargent added.
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