JINAN, China (Reuters) - With Google expected to decide soon whether to close its Chinese search engine, students at one of the schools cited by some reports for being behind hacking attacks on the Internet giant are decidedly ambivalent.
On the surface, Lanxiang Vocational School in Jinan, capital of eastern Shandong province, would hardly appear to be the kind of place from which sophisticated attacks capable of sparking Google’s threat to quit China could emanate.
Barricaded inside the strictly guarded campus, scruffy-looking students train to become everything from chefs to car mechanics. Many say they have never even heard of Google, preferring domestic search engine Baidu.
It therefore came as a surprise to many here when the New York Times reported last month that investigators believed there was evidence suggesting a link between it and the hacking attacks on Google and over 20 other firms.
Beijing has said it opposes hacking, and the school denied the report.
“We had a good laugh about it,” said Mr Zhang, a teacher at Lanxiang who declined to give his full name.
“They really put our school on a pedestal,” Zhang said, emphasizing that Lanxiang was only a vocational school, not a university. “If the (students) had better prospects they won’t be studying here.”
Still, some current and former students said they would not be surprised if there was a link to the hacking.
“I think it is very possible. The focus of the IT curriculum is very much centered on that kind of stuff,” said Shao, 28, a recent graduate who said he was “nearly driven mad” by eight months in Lanxiang’s restrictive environment.
“It’s very controlled inside. You have to pay to charge your phone, you have to pay to use the Internet,” he said.
The school’s information technology program trains students “to gather information,” said a teacher who declined to be named.
But hacking in China is also akin to a patriotic hobby with numerous websites offering cheap courses to learn the basics.
The hacking attacks and Google’s impatience with Beijing’s insistence it censor search results triggered the firm’s threat to pull out of China, which has come to a head with Beijing saying Google should obey Chinese rules even if it decides to retreat from the country.
The contrast between Lanxiang and Shanghai’s prestigious Jiao tong University, which was also named in the Times report as being linked to the hacking attacks, illustrates not just China’s economic and social diversity but the type of market Google could be giving up on should it quit the country.
Lanxiang’s 20,000 students walk around the campus’s five complexes, with gleaming facades but paint-chipped interiors, wearing chef hats or in army camouflage, under the close supervision of their teachers.
Students are only allowed out of the compound on Sundays, all guests have to be registered and tours of the school are strictly guided.
By contrast, at one of Jiaotong’s campuses in the old quarter of China’s financial capital, future bankers and other professionals stroll around in fashionable clothes on the leafy, open campus.
China has the world’s largest online community, with 384 million users at the end of last year. But many of them are more like the students at Lanxiang, struggling to find their niche in the competitive cities of China’s heartland.
It is more in places like Jiao tong, which also denied any link to the hacking attacks, where Google stands to lose the most should it pull out of China — among relatively well-to-do and internationally minded young people.
Even if Google stays, the entire episode of Google’s threatening to quit the country and having their university accused will leave an impression on many of the students here.
“There are plenty of students from other universities in China who have the capabilities to carry out the attack,” said Wu, a smartly dressed 22-year-old male finance student. “Why us?”
Editing by Jason Subler and Jerry Norton