TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Google's China Problem (and China's Google Problem)

Google's China Problem (and China's Google Problem)

Monty Solomon (
Sun, 23 Apr 2006 01:42:30 -0400

The New York Times
April 23, 2006

For many young people in China, Kai-Fu Lee is a celebrity. Not quite
on the level of a movie star like Edison Chen or the singers in the
boy band F4, but for a 44-year-old computer scientist who invariably
appears in a somber dark suit, he can really draw a crowd. When Lee,
the new head of operations for Google in China, gave a lecture at one
Chinese university about how young Chinese should compete with the
rest of the world, scalpers sold tickets for $60 apiece. At another,
an audience of 8,000 showed up; students sprawled out on the ground,
fixed on every word.

It is not hard to see why Lee has become a cult figure for China's
high-tech youth. He grew up in Taiwan, went to Columbia and
Carnegie-Mellon and is fluent in both English and Mandarin. Before
joining Google last year, he worked for Apple in California and then
for Microsoft in China; he set up Microsoft Research Asia, the
company's research-and-development lab in Beijing. In person, Lee
exudes the cheery optimism of a life coach; last year, he published
"Be Your Personal Best," a fast-selling self-help book that urged
Chinese students to adopt the risk-taking spirit of American
capitalism. When he started the Microsoft lab seven years ago, he
hired dozens of China's top graduates; he will now be doing the same
thing for Google. "The students of China are remarkable," he told me
when I met him in Beijing in February. "There is a huge desire to

Lee can sound almost evangelical when he talks about the liberating
power of technology. The Internet, he says, will level the playing
field for China's enormous rural underclass; once the country's small
villages are connected, he says, students thousands of miles from
Shanghai or Beijing will be able to access online course materials
from M.I.T. or Harvard and fully educate themselves. Lee has been with
Google since only last summer, but he wears the company's earnest,
utopian ethos on his sleeve: when he was hired away from Microsoft, he
published a gushingly emotional open letter on his personal Web site,
praising Google's mission to bring information to the masses. He
concluded with an exuberant equation that translates as "youth +
freedom + equality + bottom-up innovation + user focus + don't be evil
= The Miracle of Google."

When I visited with Lee, that miracle was being conducted out of a
collection of bland offices in downtown Beijing that looked as if they
had been hastily rented and occupied. The small rooms were full of
eager young Chinese men in hip sweatshirts clustered around enormous
flat-panel monitors, debugging code for new Google projects. "The
ideals that we uphold here are really just so important and noble,"
Lee told me. "How to build stuff that users like, and figure out how
to make money later. And 'Don't Do Evil' " - he was referring to
Google's bold motto, "Don't Be Evil" - "all of those things. I think
I've always been an idealist in my heart."

Yet Google's conduct in China has in recent months seemed considerably
less than idealistic. In January, a few months after Lee opened the
Beijing office, the company announced it would be introducing a new
version of its search engine for the Chinese market. To obey China's
censorship laws, Google's representatives explained, the company had
agreed to purge its search results of any Web sites disapproved of by
the Chinese government, including Web sites promoting Falun Gong, a
government-banned spiritual movement; sites promoting free speech in
China; or any mention of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. If you
search for "Tibet" or "Falun Gong" most anywhere in the world on, you'll find thousands of blog entries, news items and chat
rooms on Chinese repression. Do the same search inside China on, and most, if not all, of these links will be gone. Google
will have erased them completely.

Google's decision did not go over well in the United States. In
February, company executives were called into Congressional hearings
and compared to Nazi collaborators. The company's stock fell, and
protesters waved placards outside the company's headquarters in
Mountain View, Calif. Google wasn't the only American high-tech
company to run aground in China in recent months, nor was it the worst
offender. But Google's executives were supposed to be cut from a
different cloth. When the company went public two years ago, its
telegenic young founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, wrote in the
company's official filing for the Securities and Exchange Commission
that Google is "a company that is trustworthy and interested in the
public good." How could Google square that with making nice with a
repressive Chinese regime and the Communist Party behind it?


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