“We provide a number of mobile apps in China, such as Google Translate and Files Go, help Chinese developers, and have made significant investments in Chinese companies like JD.com,” said Taj Meadows, a Google spokesman. “But we don’t comment on speculation about future plans.”

Although Google pulled its search engine out of China in 2010, the company has lately displayed more interest in regaining access to the world’s largest internet population. In June, Google announced a $550 million investment in the Chinese online retailer JD.com. Last year, Google unveiled plans to open a research center in China focused on artificial intelligence. And the company has released translation and file management apps for the Chinese market. Google now has more than 700 employees in China.

In the years since Google’s exit, local competitors have risen up, including China’s dominant search engine, Baidu. Beyond search, the vast majority of Google’s services, including its app store, email service and YouTube, remain inaccessible behind the Great Firewall, as the country’s system of internet controls is known.

Talks between Google and the Chinese government over the censored search engine began before the start of the recent trade war between the United States and China, one of the people said. The talks were not going well, this person added.

But the Chinese government could nonetheless use Google as a chip in its negotiations with the American government, which has been critical of the way China limits market access for United States technology companies. By letting Google’s search engine back into China, the Chinese government could give President Trump a political victory, earning some good will.

For Google, China is an increasingly difficult market to navigate. The Chinese government has tightened internet censorship significantly since President Xi Jinping came into power five years ago. Companies need a great deal of resources to meet the censorship demands imposed by the government, and failing to do so can be serious. In the first half of 2018, China’s national internet regulator shut down or revoked the license of more than 3,000 websites.

Google is a household brand in much of the world, but its name may draw blank stares from China’s younger generation who are growing up in the post-Google Chinese internet. Winning these people will be an uphill battle for Google, especially if it cannot differentiate itself much from Baidu.

Orignially published in NYT.

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