Google's assertion that its computers were attacked by hackers based in China was groundless, Beijing said on Tuesday, hardening its rhetoric in a spat with Washington over Internet freedom.
The remarks from Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang were the first direct rejection of the firm's allegations. China had previously defended its right to censor content on the Internet and brushed aside the hacking accusations, saying Google must abide by Chinese law.
Google's statement from January 12 is groundless, and we are firmly opposed to it, Qin told a regular news briefing in the Chinese capital, when asked if there had been any development in a dispute that is now more than a month old.
China administers its Internet according to law, and this position will not change. China prohibits hacking and will crack down on hacking according to law, he added.
Google, the world's top search engine, said in January it had uncovered sophisticated China-based attacks on human rights activists using its Gmail service around the world.
Google said other firms had also been affected, and after checks into the attacks, the firm had decided it was no longer willing to tolerate censorship on its Google.cn search engine. Google also threatened to shut its China offices.
Washington backed Google and urged Beijing to investigate the hacking complaints thoroughly and transparently.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley had no direct response to China's latest assertion, but said the U.S. position on the matter remained unchanged.
It is our perspective that individuals in China played a role in that (incident). That continues to be our perspective and we will continue to have these conversations with China on this subject, Crowley told a news briefing.
The dispute about Internet censorship has added to tensions about issues ranging from trade and the Chinese currency, to a meeting last week between U.S. President Barack Obama and exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama.
The hacking issue made headlines anew after recent reports in the Western media that the attacks had been traced to two schools in China, and the writer of the spyware used had been identified as a Chinese security consultant in his 30s with government links.
The prestigious Shanghai Jiaotong University and previously unknown Lanxiang vocational college, a high-school level institution, have both denied any role in the attacks.
The foreign ministry's Qin said the schools' comments showed the reports were false, as were claims of a link with Beijing.
Reports that these attacks came from Chinese schools are totally groundless and the accusation of Chinese government involvement is also irresponsible and driven by ulterior motives, Qin said.
The official Xinhua news agency lashed out as well, with a commentary saying the stories were arbitrary and full of bias.
Chinese people know little about online security, and so their computers can easily be taken over by hackers to give the impression that the hackers are based in China, it said.
Google's Chinese-language search engine is still censoring results, but talks between the firm and the Chinese government, on whether the firm might be able to run an unrestricted search service within Chinese law, have restarted, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.
They had taken a break over Chinese New Year, the biggest holiday of the year when most of the country grinds to a halt.
Qin declined to comment directly on any negotiations, saying he had no details but relevant officials are having smooth communication with relevant Internet companies.
(Reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison, additional reporting by Ben Blanchard, editing by Bill Tarrant and Philip Barbara)