Google's future in China is "very uncertain" after it pulled its search engine from the country in a dispute over restrictions on freedom of information, a company official said Wednesday.
Google shut down its mainland Chinese search services in March, saying it no longer wanted to screen its search results for topics the government considers politically sensitive. It now redirects users to its website based in the southern Chinese territory of Hong Kong, which enjoys freedom of speech as part of its special semiautonomous status.
Addressing students at the University of Hong Kong, Google's head of government affairs for Asia acknowledged the company had lost market share since the pullout. Mainland access to Google's Hong Kong website is occasionally blocked, driving some users to local competitors like market leader Baidu.com.
"Disruptions like this to typical users can be often unsettling, so our future in China I think is very uncertain," Ross LaJeunesse said, adding, however, "we remain committed to China and to our Chinese users."
Google still maintains research and advertising sales offices in China and recently went on a hiring spree for 40 positions, sparking speculation that it was preparing to relaunch its search engine in the country.
LaJeunesse didn't address that prospect except to say Google plans to maintain a presence in China. He declined to take questions from reporters after his talk.
"We are going to try and do our very best in China to stay there and build up our market share," he said.
LaJeunesse denounced Beijing for continuing to clamp down on Internet dissent, noting how central authorities shut down most Internet and cell phone access in the western Xinjiang region after deadly ethnic riots there in July 2009.
"There is little doubt that the Chinese government is only becoming more entrenched in its attempts to control the Internet," he said.
LaJeunesse said Google products have been blocked in 25 of the 100 countries where the company operates. YouTube, in particular, has been blocked in 13 countries at some point and remains fully blocked in China, Iran and North Korea, he said.