By JOE McDONALD, AP Business Writer

BEIJING — A Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) search feature was blocked in China on Thursday, the company said as it awaited Beijing’s decision on whether to renew its operating license amid tensions over censorship.

Mainland users at were unable to use the search giant’s "suggest" feature, which offers possible results as they start to type a query, the company said.

"It appears that search queries produced by Google Suggest are being blocked for mainland users in China," said Google spokeswoman Jessica Powell in an e-mail. "Normal searches that do not use query suggestions are unaffected."

Google’s relations with Beijing have been tense since the U.S.-based search giant said in January it no longer wanted to cooperate with Chinese Web filtering following hacking attacks traced to China.

Google Inc. closed its China-based search engine March 22 and began routing users to its unfiltered Hong Kong site. But the company said this week it would stop automatic switching because Beijing objected and threatened to revoke its license.

The application deadline was Wednesday, and Powell said Google has received no word from regulators. She said the license runs through 2012 but must be renewed annually and declined to say what Google’s status is while it awaits an answer.

The official Xinhua News Agency said "there will be a result soon" and Google was "very late" in submitting the application. Phone calls to the regulator, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, were not answered.

A foreign ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, did not answer directly when asked whether Google would be allowed to operate in China.

"Internet operating companies, while doing business in China, should abide by Chinese laws and regulations," Qin said. "We hope all foreign companies, including Internet companies, should comply with Chinese laws and regulations."

The China site was operating Thursday with a tab that said "we have moved to" Clicking on that took users to the Hong Kong site.

The loss of its Chinese license would set back Google’s efforts to tap into the world’s most populous Internet market of nearly 400 million users. Web surfers could reach the Chinese-language Hong Kong site by typing in its address, but industry analysts say some are likely to switch to Chinese competitors such as Baidu Inc.

Google, based in Mountain View, California, has about 30 percent of China’s search market, versus Baidu’s 60 percent. Analysts say the shutdown of its China search engine had little impact on revenues but the outright closure of could hurt advertising sales.

The communist government promotes Internet use for education and business but tries to block material deemed subversive or pornographic. It has temporarily blocked access to Google in the past after accusing it of spreading sexually explicit material.

Google opened its China site in 2006 to attract more Chinese users after the government filters slowed their access to its main U.S. site.
In a letter requesting Google’s license renewal, the company’s local partner, Guxiang Information Technology Co. Ltd., pledged to "abide by the Chinese law" and "provide no law-breaking contents," Xinhua reported.

Also Thursday, a state-run newspaper said Google is not on the first list of companies the government plans to approve to provide online mapping services.

Twenty-three domestic companies including Baidu, portal Sohu Inc. and e-commerce site Alibaba are among those expected to be approved, the China Daily said, citing the State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping.

Asked for comment on Google’s situation, a U.S. State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley, said Wednesday in Washington, "I think there are negotiations ongoing, and these are a matter between China and Google."

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