Google's action puts pressure on China

BEIJING — At a time when they wanted to focus on the economy, Chinese leaders face a surprise political challenge: A possible Google pullout that could anger China's public and embolden other companies to vent grievances.

Google Inc.'s threat to shut down its China-based site over censorship and e-mail hacking alarmed an Internet-connected public that has tolerated a gap between rapid economic and technological progress and a closed, secretive political system.

"The political outcome is that it could stir up a restive group of people, which is the younger people and the Internet users in China who may look at access to information as a civil right," said James McGregor, a senior counselor for consulting firm APCO Worldwide Inc. and a former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China.

That potential Internet lobby is vast. China's online population soared by nearly 30 percent last year to 384 million people, bigger than the whole U.S. population. It includes the Chinese elite of entrepreneurs and professionals who have benefited most from economic reform and usually support the ruling party.

Other companies that accept pervasive controls in exchange for access to China's huge and growing market appeared unlikely to follow Google's lead.

"We're not going to see a lot of foreign companies stand up and walk out of China but you might see a lot more foreign companies standing up and being much tougher in dealing with what they consider to be an unfairness in market access and trade issues," McGregor said.