Starting Tuesday, Chinese netizens looking for google.cn found their browsers redirected to google.com.hk.
The Hong Kong site calls itself the "new home" for the popular Chinese language search engine, but the move extinguishes any hope that Google might reverse its self-destructive course and maintain google.cn on the mainland.
Over the past five years, Google has cultivated tens of thousands of followers in China. Many people, myself included, are sorry to see google.cn disappear from our desktops. Some, like a colleague of mine, fear that Google's withdrawal will prevent Chinese on the mainland from keeping up with the latest technologies.
Google's withdrawal ends a two-month charade, during which the company indulged in a lot of high-sounding rhetoric that had more to do with politics than "basic human rights". Google gave little warning to its advertisers, but it seemed to have the support of the White House and the United States National Security Council every step of the way.
Despite what Americans may think, most Chinese are not consumed with a desire to learn more about the 14th Dalai Lama or dissidents in Xinjiang. The blocked sites are, in fact, an infinitesimal part of the Internet. The vast majority of sites are still available to netizens here.
Also, Google's withdrawal has little to do with the reported hacking of their system. Others, like Microsoft, have said they're hacked all the time. In fact, an American friend of mine living in Boston cautioned me long ago not to use gmail because "it's not safe."
Google is making a big show of principle, of defending Internet freedom. But there is no absolute freedom of speech. Americans are comfortable with the idea that you can't yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater (unless it's on fire). Is it an inalienable right to post child pornography on the web? Many people - Chinese and American - say no. What is the difference between recruiting jihadists in New York and inciting ethnic violence in Xinjiang?
Anyone who thought China was going to cave in to the demands of an American search engine company has been reading the Wall Street Journal too long. The idea that a foreign company could dictate its will to a sovereign country died 150 years ago with the British East India Company.
Truth be told, all this talk of principle is a cover for google.cn's failure as a business.
No one can match Google in the global market, especially in English. I myself use google.com a lot, although I also rely on yahoo and other news media websites for news and opinions.
However, Google lost the battle to become the top Chinese language search engine even before it promised to abide by Chinese law in 2006. In those days, even Yahoo.cn did better than Google in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Last year, only 17.3 percent of the 280 million netizens who regularly do searches on the Internet in Chinese chose google.cn as their most favored search engine, a 3.5 percent increase over 2008.