Reporting from Beijing —
A Google Inc. official said China had renewed the search engine's license to operate its website in China, a move that came as a surprise after the company engaged in a contentious spat with authorities over censorship.
The announcement was posted early Friday morning on a blog belonging to Google's chief legal officer, David Drummond.
"We are very pleased that the government has renewed our [Internet Content Provider] license, and we look forward to continuing to provide Web search and local products to our users in China," Drummond wrote.
A spokesman for China's regulator in charge of Google's license renewal, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Google, the second-most-popular search engine in China, said in January that it would no longer censor search results on its Chinese website, google.cn. In March, the Mountain View, Calif., company began automatically rerouting its users in mainland China to its uncensored Hong Kong website.
Regulators opposed the move, saying it violated Chinese law. On Monday, Google stopped rerouting visitors to google.com.hk, instead providing a link to the Hong Kong website. It also listed three other links to google.cn's music, translation and shopping services.
"It's clear from conversations we have had with Chinese government officials that they find the redirect unacceptable — and that if we continue redirecting users our Internet Content Provider license will not be renewed," Drummond wrote.
"Without an ICP license, we can't operate a commercial website like Google.cn — so Google would effectively go dark in China."
Drummond said such an outcome would have been dreaded by Chinese users, which is why the company opted for providing the link to the Hong Kong website.
Google's license is valid until 2012, but it must be renewed each year. The search engine submitted a renewal application June 29, a day before its deadline.
Michael Anti, a media critic in Beijing, said the renewal should not be viewed as an acquiescence on the part of China's government to Google's stand on censorship. He said officials probably were reluctant to see Google leave China because of its significant contributions to the domestic cellphone market and research and development.
"This has nothing to do with censorship," Anti said. "The Chinese government could have been vengeful. But they didn't want to destroy their investments."