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A subtle change making uncensored searches one click away may have been enough.

Associated Press

BEIJING - China renewed Google's license to operate a website, preserving the search giant's toehold in the world's most populous country after the company gave up an attempt to skirt Beijing's censorship practices.

Google said Friday that Chinese officials had approved its Internet content provider, or ICP, license, but gave no details of what services it would offer.

"We are very pleased that the government has renewed our ICP license, and we look forward to continuing to provide Web search and local products to our users in China," Google's top lawyer, David Drummond, said in a statement.

The company's one-sentence statement gave no details. Google spokeswoman Courtney Hohne said information on what services Google will offer in China would be released in coming weeks.

Renewal had been in question after Google began automatically redirecting users in China to an uncensored Hong Kong search site. But Google dismantled the virtual bridge to Hong Kong last week after regulators objected to the sleight of hand and threatened to revoke its Internet license.

Users are still only a single step away from the Hong Kong service. They can click anywhere on the page to go to Hong Kong, a subtle change that could still be enough to persuade mainland Chinese to use a competing search site instead.

And while mainland users can get uncensored Google results from Hong Kong even for controversial topics, users will not always be able to click through the links because of government filters.

Google said in January it no longer wanted to comply with rules requiring it to censor search results after it traced hacking attacks to China. The announcement embarrassed Chinese leaders, prompting questions about whether they might punish the company by shutting it out of China, where Google has a lucrative advertising business and a fledgling mobile phone operation.

In March, Google shut down its mainland China-based site, which had excluded from its results sites that could not be reached from China. It redirected users to the uncensored Hong Kong site instead.

Google opted not to leave China completely so it could pursue its commercial ambitions - a music service, its mobile phone business, a Beijing development center and a staff to sell ads for the Chinese-language version of its U.S. search engine.

And to keep the license, it stopped the automatic redirection.

Losing the China license would have been a significant setback for Google, even though China will account only for an estimated $250 million to $600 million of the company's projected $28 billion in revenue this year. China already has nearly 400 million Web surfers and usage is expected to rise for years to come.

For Beijing, the renewal tones down a high-profile dispute at a time when U.S. and European businesses are complaining about unfair treatment by the government and saying China has become less welcoming to foreign business.

Unlike in the United States, Google is not the dominant player in China, with some 30 percent of the search market to Baidu's 60 percent.