BEIJING -- Chinese internet users are finding it much easier to use Google Maps after eight years of the service being tightly limited.
While Google's flagship search function is still inaccessible in the country, the renewed availability of its map service could signal a shift in the Chinese government's stance toward the U.S. tech behemoth.
Until recently, internet users in China could not access Google Maps through apps on their mobile phones. But in recent days, users have found that applications that offer maps based on Google data have become accessible. Now, when a user seeks directions to a destination on these maps, they are redirected to a Chinese map application run by AutoNavi, an affiliate of Alibaba Group Holding, which provides the directions.
"There have been no changes to Google Maps in China," said Taj Meadows, head of Google's policy communications in the Asia Pacific. Google Maps have been accessible on desktop for years, but do not have an official presence in Android or iOS app stores in China, he said.
There have been, however, various unofficial applications that used Google's map technology. While previously blocked, they have recently become accessible, making it possible for users to have the Google experience.
On Monday, Chinese netizens were hailing the revival of Google Maps as the American company's return to China, where its trademark search and other services have been unavailable since 2010. While Google began offering a translation app for Chinese smartphones in March 2017, the map service has a much wider appeal, and is one of Google's best-known offerings.
Areas of agreement
The timing of the new accessibility suggests a change in policy in this country. Under President Xi Jinping, China's government intensified its crackdown on online dissent through a cybersecurity law that took effect in June 2017. But Beijing is also eager to develop artificial intelligence technologies, which Google has in abundance, for applications such as self-driving vehicles. The two sides seem to have agreed to put aside discussions of Google's search and video-sharing sites like YouTube, where a clash is likely, and instead cooperate on AI development, an executive at a Chinese internet company said.
Cooperation will help Google draw on AI experts in China, and could pave the way for more effective research and development. Partnering with Beijing would also make it easier to collect large amounts of data by holding large-scale trials for technologies such as automated driving under the government's auspices.
The American company announced in December that it would open the Google AI China Center for research into artificial intelligence. Chinese media report Google has leased a Beijing office with space for more than 300 workers. The company is expected to launch basic research there soon, and could eventually expand into automated driving research as well.
Earlier this month, Google participated in an investment in Chushou, a platform where users can live-stream games played on their mobile phones. About 90 million users have signed up. The last time that Google invested in a Chinese internet company was in 2015, and the latest outlay has stirred demands for a full-scale return.
Other American technology giants have found the Chinese market too big to ignore. Companies such as Apple and Amazon.com have to comply with the cybersecurity law, such as by allowing data-center operations to be handed off to Chinese companies, and are now looking to build up Chinese operations in their own right.
But others remain resistant. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is thought to have explored the prospect of expanding to China, where the social networking service is currently blocked, in a meeting with Xi last October. But Facebook is concerned that meeting China's demands on data management and self-censorship would jeopardize the company's reputation in the U.S. and Europe, and the standoff continues.
Correction: This story initially reported incorrectly that Google "has set up a China-specific version of the Google Maps website."