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Is Google another step closer to being unblocked in China?

A Chinese flag flies outside the Google China headquarters in Beijing, China, on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010.
Nelson Ching | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A Chinese flag flies outside the Google China headquarters in Beijing, China, on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010.

Google is still in talks with Beijing over its plans to return to the mainland Chinese market, according to a senior Chinese lawmaker and former top official with knowledge of the negotiations.

"China has been in touch with Google through various channels. Last year, leaders of our country's important department had further communication with Google," said Liu Binjie, a standing committee member of the National People's Congress and former head of the General Administration of Press and Publication.

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Google Scholar, a search engine for scholarly literature, was among the services on Beijing's priority list for re-entry, according to Liu, who was speaking to the Sunday Morning Post on the sidelines of the China's annual plenary sessions in Beijing on Friday.

There was hope that a part of Google's business would return to China first, gradually followed by others, the lawmaker said.

"The academic sector will be the first to get through," Liu said. "China's focus is on [making] academic progress, such as academic exchanges as well as [exchanges in] science and culture, instead of news, information or politics."

Other Google functions under negotiation included "service functions that do not involve [politically] sensitive information," according to the lawmaker.

But no timetable had yet been set for Google's return, he said.

Since Google pulled its search engine out of mainland China in 2010 after a bitter spat with Beijing over its strict censorship rules, the internet giant has from time to time expressed its desire to venture back into the world's biggest internet market.

China has 721 million users and the number is still growing.

In 2015, Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt told a tech conference in Beijing that Google was in constant dialogue with Beijing as it sought to "serve the whole of China". Alphabet is Google's parent company.

"China's principle is that you have to operate according to Chinese law if you want to enter the Chinese market," Liu said. "But if [Google] goes by Chinese rules, it would harm its global operation rules and [its image as] a fair, open platform. Some agreements have yet to be reached in this aspect."

The lawmaker added that commerce regulators were involved in the talks, which had been ongoing since 2014.

A Ministry of Commerce spokesman said he did not know about the matter and that the ministry was "not the department in charge". Google did not respond to requests for comment.

Last month, US-based technology news outlet The Information reported that Google was in talks NetEase, China's second-biggest online games operator, to form a venture to launch its Google Play application store in the country. The report cited people familiar with the discussions.

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