Just as Google and China are sitting down to talk again about hacking attacks, censorship and Google's future in China, a government official in Beijing publicly called out Google by calling its claims of a hacking attack "groundless."
Until now, the Chinese government had been somewhat cooperative with Google and the U.S. about the highly sophisticated hacking attack against Google and other companies last year. Government officials have publicly condemned hacking and even made some arrests to break up a hacking ring in China.
But those sacrificial arrests weren't enough to ease the concerns of Google or investigators in the U.S. They kept digging and digging and, this week, it was learned that the hacking attacks traced back to a prestigious university and a vocational school with ties to the government. Yesterday, the Financial Times reported that the U.S. analysts had identified the author of the hacking code as a 30-something freelance security consultant who doesn't really want to be involved in these sort of efforts but that his skill level has the attention of government officials who are "looking over his shoulder."
Now, all of the sudden, Google's claims are groundless. It appears that the Chinese government may have been feeling the pressure of being backed into a corner and had to come out swinging. At a news briefing in the Chinese capital, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said:
Google's statement from January 12 is groundless, and we are firmly opposed to it. 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... Reports that these attacks came from Chinese schools are totally groundless and the accusation of Chinese government is also irresponsible and driven by ulterior motives.
For now, Google is still censoring search results on behalf of the government, as required by law, while company officials meet with Chinese officials to discuss next steps. But a statement like this from a government official gives us a hint at how those talks must be going.
If talks break down, it will be interesting to see if Google follows through with its threat to uncensor the Internet in China and, if need be, shutter its operations there. Clearly, it's a sensitive matter. Washington has backed Google's assertions and reaffirmed its support for a free Internet but all parties have agreed that this should not affect government relations between the two countries.
The ball may soon be back in Google's court. What's the next play?