Long inaccessible from within China without the use of a proxy server, Google's free weblog service, Blogger, can now be accessed directly by internet users in Beijing. In addition, Chinese internet users can now access cached web pages on Google's search engine.

Chinese access to Blogger was apparently blocked by government censors starting in 2002. At the same time, when Chinese users attempted to access Google's website, they were redirected to one of several Chinese search engines, which indicated DNS (domain name system) records had likely been changed to block access to the US-based search engine.

This virtual hijacking of Google's domain name was shortlived, but the apparent blocking of Blogger – likely implemented to shut out sites that contained information government censors didn't want disseminated in China – persisted for three years. The blocks continued even as access to other foreign blog sites, such as Six Apart Ltd's Typepad service, went largely unchecked and Chinese-run blog sites began to flourish.

The opening of access to the cached websites on Google, which had previously been blocked by the company itself rather than government censors, appears to be a slightly different situation. In this case, the cache function may have been disabled by Google and was not blocked by the Chinese government, according to an observer familiar with the situation.

Google executives were not immediately available to comment. The Chinese government does not acknowledge whether it takes actions to block specific websites, sometimes making it difficult to confirm whether a site has been blocked.

The reopening of access to Blogger comes as Google takes steps to ramp up its presence in China. The company has established a representative office in Shanghai and has employed ex-Microsoft executive Kai-Fu Lee to hire researchers for a planned research and development centre to be opened in China. Lee, who earlier set up Microsoft's China R&D centre, is widely respected in Chinese academic circles and has long cast himself in the role of an advisor to Chinese university students through his personal website, Kai-Fu's Student Network.

In recent weeks, Lee has been busy in China, giving speeches to students at Chinese universities and granting interviews to the Chinese press to discuss his plans for Google's R&D centre in China. However, Lee's position at Google is not assured.

Lee is presently embroiled in a US lawsuit brought by Microsoft, which claims Lee breached a non-compete and nondisclosure agreement when he joined Google. Last month, a Washington state judge ruled that Lee could begin work at Google in a limited capacity, recruiting researchers for Google's China R&D centre, pending a trial in January 2006.

If the judge in that case rules against Lee and blocks his employment by Google, the company is not likely to languish without an executive to oversee its Chinese operations.

Chinese media has reported that Google recently hired Johnny Chou, executive vice president of telecommunications equipment maker UT Starcom Inc and president and chief operating officer of UT Starcom China, to jointly head its operations in China alongside Lee. A Google representative in Beijing said Wednesday that the company had no announcement to make regarding Chou, but his name had been removed from a list of top executives on UT Starcom's website.

While the opening of access to Blogger in China and the reported hiring of Chou suggest Google's efforts to establish a presence in China are showing results for the company, there have been hiccups.

Recently, the company came under fire in Taiwan for labelling the island on its Google Maps service as ’Taiwan, Province of China’. Taiwan's political status is a highly sensitive issue in China, which regards the island as a renegade province. However, most people in Taiwan take a different view and do not regard the island as part of the People's Republic of China.

At first, Google defended the description of Taiwan as conforming to international norms but later appeared to back down by changing the label to simply read ’Taiwan’. The company later said the Taiwanese government's complaints sped up existing plans to drop the reference to Taiwan as a province of China.

But now that Google has waded into the quicksand of Taiwan's political status, changing the name may not put the issue to rest. A news report carried on the popular Internet portal Sina.com noted a Chinese official in the US opposed the name change and planned to raise the matter with Google.