After the breakdown of negotiations with the Chinese government over censorship and other issues, Google yesterday redirected traffic from its mainland China site, which had been heavily censored, to the Hong Kong Google site, which was censored but much less so. In response, the Chinese government "disabled searches for objectionable content completely or blocked links to certain results" on the Hong Kong web site according to a report in the New York Times.
As I said yesterday, Google's action left the Chinese government with few options, and all of them were problematic. In the past, Google results simply did not display links to banned content. With today's move, mainland Chinese users will now see what they're not getting. Google will return the links, but the links don't work. That state of affairs highlights to the mainland public how much of the Internet is censored, and so it's not an ideal solution, nor necessarily a permanent one.
Blocking Google altogether inside China could create an even more embarrassing situation for the government, as would blocking or censoring the Hong Kong site. The reason is that the Google demographic leans heavily in favor of the educated elite, and the kind of people who Beijing most fears because they are in a position to start political movements in favor of democratic reforms. Blocking Google altogether placed into sharp relief how backward China's censorship policies really are.
Although Hong Kong citizens enjoy vastly greater freedoms than mainland Chinese, the issue of free speech is a hot-button of friction. Every year, huge rallies by pro-democracy activists take place in Hong Kong. Even before the most recent action by the government, many in Hong Kong believed existing censorship was already too much. By suddenly plunging the Hong Kong Google site into the highly censored condition of the mainland site, Beijing would risk new tensions.