Google's announcement that it may quit China over censorship and hacking drew applause, warnings and bouquets from dissidents and Internet activists on Wednesday, with few seeing much chance of the wary government giving ground.
Google, the world's top search engine, said it might shut its Chinese-language google.cn website after China-based cyber attacks on dissidents using its Gmail service.
At the company's China headquarters in Beijing's university district, a dozen locals laid a bouquet of red roses and white lilies on Google's sign at the company entrance.
They praised the company, shouting some salty Beijing slang.
We want to express outrage, but not at Google. Coming here is a type of support for Google, said IT worker Zhao Gang, 30.
Google faces very strict and adverse conditions in China. Something we knew in our hearts is now out in the open. I believe it's a watershed moment for the Internet in China this year.
Chinese activists have long complained that China's Communist Party has tightened its grip on the Internet, stifling the spread of information and ideas in the name of public safety and morals.
Their complaints have now been echoed by the world's biggest Internet firm and by Washington, where Hillary Clinton said the Chinese government should explain the attacks.
With such volleys aimed at China, Internet control is sure to climb the pile of frictions between Washington and Beijing, joining economic disputes, arms sales to Taiwan and Tibet.
The surprise isn't the hacking or censorship. That's everywhere here, said Liu Ning, a writer and blogger in Beijing. The surprise is such a big company breaking the silence about all these problems ... Until now, they've kept quiet.
Yet even Chinese dissidents who welcomed Google's stance saw little chance of Beijing bowing to the renewed pressure, worried the country's 360 million Internet users could be exposed to banned news and ideas, especially challenges to one-Party rule.
Our space for expression on the Internet has been narrowing, because government control has become increasingly detailed and pervasive. I don't see that relaxing, said Xu Youyu, a Beijing academic who has campaigned for broader human rights.
Google did not say whether it believed the Chinese government was behind the hacker attacks.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has repeatedly denied the government sponsors hacking. Foreign experts say some of the attacks bear signs of sophisticated organization.
Several Chinese rights campaigners said their email accounts, including Gmail, had often been targeted by phishing attacks, deceptive emails gain access to the user's information.
China uses a lot of tools to target dissidents, and tries to break into their private thoughts and actions, said artist Ai Weiwei, who has mobilized Internet users on a range of sensitive causes. Most dissidents aren't all that careful about security.
If Google shuts google.cn, the government may tighten curbs on access to the company's search engine's based overseas, which can also support Chinese-language searches, said Wang Junxiu, a businessman who has campaigned against Internet censorship.
Many ordinary Chinese, however, use the local Baidu search engine to roam the Internet, and many of the Internet companies and users may not join the uproar over censorship.
I sent around the message to my colleagues, but they didn't care, said Ma Jie, 28, a researcher who joined the small protest at Google's Beijing office. They thought Google is stupid, when there's so much money to be made in China.
(Editing by Benjamin Kang Lim)