The license for Google's China website expires at midnight, but as the workday ended it had not been renewed. The US firm antagonized Beijing this year by refusing to censor its search results.
Google closed its Beijing offices for the day Wednesday still uncertain whether its Chinese website would be legal in the morning.
As a midnight deadline for an annual license renewal loomed, Google was still awaiting a decision by the Chinese authorities on its application for a new permit to act as an Internet content provider.
The fate of the American search engine giant – which in January announced that it would no longer submit searches by mainland Chinese users to official censorship as required – has been watched as a test of Internet freedom in the country.
“We are still waiting to hear from the government,” said Marsha Wang, Google spokeswoman in Beijing, on Wednesday afternoon. “We do not know.”
Google said it decided to stop censoring its search results after it had detected cyberattacks coming from China against human rights activists’ Gmail accounts.
It has circumvented Chinese censorship since March by automatically redirecting any user who visited google.cn to the company’s uncensored website in Hong Kong, at google.com.hk.
The Chinese authorities objected, however. “It is clear from conversations we have had with Chinese government officials that they find the redirect unacceptable – and that if we continue redirecting users, our Internet Content Provider license will not be renewed,” Google’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, said on Google’s official blog.
“Without an ICP license, we can’t operate a commercial website like Google.cn – so Google would effectively go dark in China,” Mr. Drummond wrote.
Google responded this week to government concerns by adding a step that users on the Chinese mainland must take themselves to find their way to the Hong Kong site. It was still unclear Wednesday evening whether Beijing would accept this technical gesture.
The uncertainty over Google’s website, which channels about one third of Chinese Web searches, has also raised doubts over the company’s other business activities in China, such as its research and development center and its bid to persuade Chinese mobile phonemakers to install its Android software.
On Tuesday, Sina.com published screenshots from the Beijing Municipal Administration of Industry and Commerce website, apparently showing that the four companies through which Google operates in China have all had their business licenses renewed. Those pages could no longer be accessed on Wednesday, and Ms. Wang said she could not comment on the status of Google’s business license applications.
In any case, Google’s website requires a separate license from the Beijing Communications Administration. The agency’s spokesman was not available for comment Wednesday evening.