"Our country is at a crucial stage of reform and development," he was quoted as saying, adding: "Internet media must always make nurturing positive, progressive mainstream opinion an important duty.

In a separate comment the state-run China Daily newspaper described Google's threat as a "strategy to put pressure on the Chinese government".

Cyber attacks

In a surprise announcement on Tuesday Google said it would drop the government-mandated filtering of web search results after uncovering what it said was a series of "highly sophisticated" cyber attacks targeting human rights activists' email accounts.

China keeps tight controls over what users can see over the internet [EPA]
The company said that if it was unable to reach an agreement with the Chinese government that may mean it will have to close down its China operations.

The change marks a major policy-shift by the California-based company, which had previously said it would abide by Chinese government censorship rules blocking access to sites officially deemed socially or political undesirable.

Google launched its Chinese service Google.cn in 2006, hoping to secure a foothold in the world's fastest-growing internet market.

But with around a third of the Chinese search market it trails homegrown Chinese rival Baidu.com, which handles more than 60 per cent of online searches.

'Defiance'

Google's announcement has triggered a wave of comments in Chinese online forums, with many supporting the company's position.

"Their move shows defiance towards censorship"

"Iranger"
writing on People.com

"Their move shows defiance towards censorship," a user named Iranger wrote on the People.com forum.

Another user on the People's forum site wrote: "I've been using Google all the time – it's much better than the results on Baidu. What should I do if it leaves?"

But other comments posted online were critical of Google, saying companies doing business in China must follow Chinese rules.

"Google is just shooting an empty bullet, trying to threaten us Chinese," wrote one user on People's Forum.

"They are trying to get the attention from the government. It's all money business, and Google is just wants a piece of it. If it wants to go, leave by all means."

Another user, Yayayoung on the People.com, wrote: "Those who don't abide by rules in China please leave, this is great news."

Outside Google's offices in China, some supporters left bouquets of lilies and messages of goodwill, urging it to continue operations.

"I'm here to pay my respects to Google because they did not lose their dignity and they stayed true to their company's beliefs," well-wisher You Liwei told the Associated Press outside Google's Beijing headquarters.