A Google sign is seen during the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai on Sept 17, 2018. (Reuters photo)
HONG KONG: Google Translate, one of the few remaining consumer services that the US tech giant made available in mainland China, is no longer accessible in the country, marking the company's latest retreat from the world's largest internet market.
The app has been inaccessible to mainland Chinese users since Saturday. They have been redirected to a generic search bar, with a notice asking users to bookmark the service’s Hong Kong webpage, which is also inaccessible on the mainland.
The built-in translation function on Google’s Chrome browser has also become unavailable in the country, according to various user posts on Chinese social media.
The move to discontinue Google Translate’s service in China was first reported by TechCrunch. Google told the American online news site that the app’s pullback was “due to low usage” on the mainland.
Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday.
While a number of Chinese technology companies provide a range of translation services, the Google Translate app has a large user base in the country. In August, the Chinese Google Translate website recorded 53.5 million visits from desktop and mobile users combined, according to data on web analytics platform Similarweb.
The move to discontinue Google Translate on the mainland reflects the US tech giant’s complex history with the Chinese government.
Google announced its exit from the Chinese mainland in January 2010, citing targeted cyberattacks originating from the country and a clash with Beijing over the tightened control of online speech. The Chinese government subsequently blocked Google’s services on the mainland.
But in March 2017, Google Translate was reintroduced on the mainland without much fanfare after a seven-year absence. Google’s comeback in China had been widely speculated the previous year.
On Chinese social media over the weekend, users lamented the loss of Google Translate. “You can’t use this and you can’t use that, having to read foreign documents every day,” one user wrote on Chinese question-and-answer site Zhihu. “Now I don’t know what to do.”
Google, which has made several attempts to revive its presence on the mainland, has been running modest operations outside its core search engine business. These include developer services, supporting Chinese companies to advertise online overseas and storage management app Files Go.
In July 2018, Google launched a mini-game that became immediately popular on Tencent Holdings super app WeChat. The month before, Google invested US$550 million in Chinese e-commerce powerhouse JD.com.
In December that same year, Google chief executive Sundar Pichai told a US congressional panel that the company has “no plans” to relaunch a search engine in China though it is continuing to study the idea.
That put to rest speculation, which had been rife in August 2018, that Google planned to launch a censored version of its search engine in China, which would blacklist sites on human rights, democracy, religion and other issues deemed sensitive by the Chinese government.