Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Google's Problems in China: Perceptions of a Chinese Internet User in Guiyang

In the latest chapter of Google's challenges in China, Google has accused the Chinese Government of interfering with its Gmail service (see here).  That an American company would face "special" problems in China is not surprising.  Recent reports indicate that a growing number of American companies are listing "bureaucracy" as their main concern and complaining that they are discriminated against (see here).  

I certainly have my own thoughts on these topics, but first I'd like to share the thoughts of someone else -- a 26 year old female in Guiyang, Guizhou.  She recently completed a Masters degree and is working full time in the real estate domain.  I will refer to her as Rui Rui, not her real name.  I've selected her for a variety of reasons:  her comments were made recently, she lives in one of the numerous regions important to fully understanding China yet often ignored in research, she was completely comfortable with me sharing her thoughts in this manner, and what she said reflected much of the spirit I've heard from many other Chinese on a variety of subjects.

I asked Rui Rui if she was aware of any events this or last year involving Google in China.  She first commented that she was extremely concerned last year that Google would pull out of China.  Because she was concerned about censorship on the Internet?  No.  Because she wanted to see Google stand up to China?  No again.  The main reason for her concern was that she was writing a thesis for her Masters and needed to seek information sources outside of China.  Without Google she felt that her research efforts would be seriously hampered.

Rui Rui said she uses both Google and Baidu, Google's main competitor in China.  However, she does not use them similarly.  She uses Baidu to search for material within China and Google for material outside of China because she feels Baidu is very poor for searching non-China based information.  In the research I've done across China, I have found this pattern of usage is common for people who desire to access web sites based inside China and web sites based outside China.  For example, here is a photo of the computer screen of a college student in Harbin, Heilongjiang, Dalian, Liaoning, a very different part of China, who also uses Google and Baidu in a similar fashion:

The tool depicted above allows quick access to user-selected web sites.  Baidu is in the upper left rectangle and Google is next to it.

Rui Rui also said that she didn't care that Google "moved its search" to Hong Kong because it didn't impact her search needs and she noticed no obvious differences (technically speaking, Google directed its search services in China to its servers in Hong Kong).

Her thoughts about why Google was having its various problems with the Chinese Government were particularly intriguing.  Was it because Google refused to censor its search results?  No.  Instead, she believed the source of Google's problems was that "Google was taking others' profits".  In this case, "others" meant Chinese companies.  She accepted it as being obvious that the Chinese Government would get involved in business matters to help or hinder companies.  Especially in her new field of work, she often sees examples of how government officials, often influenced by who is most connected to them, can "unfairly" make or break crucial aspects of getting business done in China.

That Rui Rui's thoughts regarding many aspects of Google's situation in China appeared to be primarily influenced by her day to day needs, desires, and experiences is typical for what I've seen across China.  Rui Rui remains pragmatic on such matters even with exposure to non-Chinese media and some negative feelings toward the Chinese Government and some of its policies.  For example, she readily shared that during the Cultural Revolution some of her family fled from Shanghai to Guiyang to avoid expected persecution from Communist Party members.  Regardless, her primary concerns today revolve around her immediate desires to improve her quality of life and gain new experiences -- goals she seems to be effectively achieving in her own way.

For now, I'd like to close with one of Rui Rui's related thoughts on fairness and the legal system in China since it sheds further light on how she now views the predicament not only faced by American companies such as Google but also faced by Chinese who aren't well connected in China.

A colleague of Rui Rui recently introduced a saying to her that she has found to be true in her everyday work.

Rui Rui emphatically said, "In China, everyone is equal in front of the law."

She then looked at me in silence.  After a long pause she continued, "The differences are behind the law..."


  1. I have one question about the fighting between Google and Baidu: Since Baidu's aim is to dominate the whole China market (and expand to the similars markets) and has supports from Chinese government; however, its technology is well far behind Google's, do you think Baidu has a potential of winning (market portion) in the long-term? Thanks :)

  2. By the way, I think I have an answer from the loss report of Baidu Japan :)

  3. Sorry for the very delayed reply. Your question got me thinking and I plan to address it in an upcoming post. Thanks!

  4. Her fear is coming true now, i guess. Just went to mainland and found out all google service is inaccessible withou vpn.