Google: How not to win friends in China

Posted by: Bruce Einhorn on November 1, 2006

Last year, Google hired with much fanfare Kai-Fu Lee, the former exec from Microsoft whom Bill Gates had sent to China in 1998 to launch Microsoft’s Asia research center. Lee has been busy building a Google team in China, but so far the results have pretty disappointing. Google trails market leader Baidu.com and, according to one research firm, has actually lost market share in the year since Lee’s arrival. (See my BW story on Google here for more on the company’s China problems.)

Lee says that the game is just getting started, and he expresses confidence that Google will be able to muscle its way to the top. He may be right; after all, not many people have won by betting against Google. But Google China may have a bigger problem than just Baidu or any of the other Chinese Internet companies looking to expand their search business. Lee and the other Google China executives have to contend with a government that is probably less than thrilled at the idea of the U.S. company extending its dominance into Chinese cyberspace. Google has played by the Chinese rules when it comes to censorship, but with reservations. To its credit, when Google China does filter out search results, the company makes a point of letting its users know that they’re getting censored searches. Not the sort of thing that reassures Beijing cadres that you’re on their side. Adding to their unease were comments that Sergey Brin made back in June, expressing ambivalence about whether Google made the right decision by agreeing to go along with censorship in the first place. “Perhaps now the principled approach makes more sense,” he mused to reporters.

I doubt such comments reassure free-speech advocates in the U.S.; it’s hard to convince them that Google has stayed true to its don’t-be-evil ethos. Meanwhile, Google hasn’t won friends in China. Chinese officials, the state-controlled press and ordinary citizens are pretty sensitive to perceived insults. Microsoft learned that lesson back in the early 1990s, when it announced that it was making its Taiwan office the company’s Greater China headquarters, a snub that Communists in Beijing remembered for years. Now, says one high-tech analyst whom I can’t identify, “you have a couple of Google guys who made the same mistake that Bill Gates did, who screwed his own company for five years.” Adds this analyst: “Saying ‘We don’t need China,’ that doesn’t play too well.”

Reader Comments

Jennifer E. Overington

August 8, 2009 2:17 AM

Many people have been considering for a long time how to refer to the various lands that are managed by Chinese culture, and these lands are worldwide. Chinese businessmen are creating jobs for people in Africs. Throughout North America our many cities have Chinatown. Much of Southeast Asia has predominantly Chinese culture. Many of the small islands feel as though they are self-governing even though the paperwork may indicate otherwise and many of these very small islands are from time to time open borders. It remains useful to all of us to maintain ambiguous and flexible borders. Mainland China has thousands of years of experience in protecting and managing its borders. Considering all of this and their past rejection of the term 'Greater China' (which is a term used for the Vancouver region in Canada), how about this suggestion:
(a) globally all land managed by Chinese culture is loosely referred to as China, without ownership in places where that would cause difficulties (such as San Francisco, to name one), and
(b) all Chinese managed land is referred to by its familiar and local name. Some examples: Quinhai is Quinhai. Guangdong is Guangdong. Mainland China is Mainland China. Viet Nam is Viet Nam. Peng Hu is Peng Hu.

The point of this way of speaking is to acknowledge how Chinese culture works. We want to keep ambiguity, respect for local authorities and for Beijing, and we want to acknowledge both Mainland China and that part of China that has grown extensively throughout the world. It may be the case that the Chinese taught the Micmac to read and write, and if so, credit where credit is due.

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