News that Google’s search engine for academic literature may be allowed back into China has sparked fears that Beijing’s information controls may start to creep beyond China’s borders.

Liu Binjie (柳斌杰), a standing committee member of the China’s National People’s Congress and former head of the General Administration of Press and Publication, told the South China Morning Post that last year Chinese officials from an “important department” had been in touch with Google.

Liu said that there was a possibility of some of Google’s products being allowed to return to China, and Google Scholar was on a priority list for re-entry, SCMP reports.

Google’s search engine operations exited China in 2010 after the company clashed with Beijing over censorship regulations and a series of cyber attacks on users of the company’s email service, which Google said were sponsored by the Chinese government. Google Scholar was the last Google product to be pulled out of the Chinese market, in 2014.

J. Michael Cole, a senior non-resident fellow at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, says “there is absolutely no doubt” Google would have to comply with censorship regulations if it was to re-enter China.

“My fear is of a possible spillover effect, in that the restrictions that apply to the China market can then, little by little, begin to affect access to information outside China,” Cole says. “And of course, this raises serious issues for those of us who are in Hong Kong – and perhaps even in Taiwan – which is contingent on how Google and the Chinese leadership define the boundaries of China could also see access to certain types of information be undermined."

Taipei-based Cole also notes potential new rules that could result in an indictment if a journalist or academic "defames" heroes of the Revolution, which, he says, could have a “chilling effect” on journalistic and academic freedom.

“No doubt material provided by Google would be subject to such regulations.”

Academic progress?

Liu said that if Google wanted to return to China, it had to abide by China’s strict censorship and information regulations, but SCMP reports that could harm its image as an fair and open platform.

Still, according to Liu, the academic search engine would be the first to get through China’s great firewall, as “China’s focus is on [making] academic progress, such as academic exchanges as well as [exchanges in] science and culture, instead of news, information or politics,” Liu told the SCMP.

Microsoft and Chinese search engine Baidu also provide similar search functions for academia but many scholars prefer Google Scholar, The Initium reports. In May 2016, scholars at an academic conference held by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering noted that the strict censorship law in China was a loss to academics in China.

Other Google services that are under negotiation include “service functions that do not involve [politically] sensitive information,” Liu told the SCMP.

Jason Hsu (許毓仁) is a legislator-at-large with Taiwan's Kuomintang and founder of TEDxTaipei. He says that gaining market access in China for large tech companies like Google and Facebook may be part of the broader U.S. strategy with Beijing. A deal between China and Google may have already been negotiated ahead of the talks between U.S. President Donald Trump and China President Xi Jinping, which are expected to take place next month.

Hsu agrees that to gain reentry, Google would have to comply with Chinese censorship. While Scholar is perhaps one of the least sensitive of the company’s product suite, it would have to avoid politically sensitive content on issues like Taiwan independence. Hsu was unsure whether making such concessions would harm Google’s reputation.

Tough road for tech in China

China currently blocks Google’s entire product suite, including its search engine, Google Maps, and Gmail.

However, in November 2015, Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, said at the TechCrunch Beijing conference that Google “never left China.” He also said that the company was in constant talks with Beijing as it sought to better serve the country.

In December 2015, Google listed more than 50 job openings for positions at offices in Beijing and Shanghai, The Initium reports. There were also rumors in 2015 that the company was working on a China version of its Playstore that would comply with Chinese censors.

On Feb. 8, it was reported that Netease, China’s second-largest games firm, had approached Google to form a joint venture that could launch Google’s play store into China, the world’s largest smartphone market.

China now has 712 million internet users, and that number continues to grow.

Late last year, Facebook was reported to be developing censorship tools to suppress user content in order to help the company break back into China. While it remains unknown when the software will be finished or implemented, critics say the social media network would need to do more to succeed, such as partnering with Chinese companies and investing in the local ecosystem.

Others point out that while China holds an estimated 721 million internet users, the country already has many other social networks — Weibo and WeChat, for example — which would be strong competitors for Facebook.

Editor: Edward White