Google Left China = Baidu Gained = Chinese Netizens Lose

Cartoon showing the a Google shaped hole in the Great Wall being bricked up.

Earlier this year, we all went through the “Google Leaving China” debacle. To review, a combination of frustrations had brought Google to reconsider its willingness to continue operating the Google.cn search property as they had previously agreed upon with the Chinese government. Google sought to renegotiate, while the government insisted that companies operating in China must abide by China’s laws. Set on no longer abiding by those laws and knowing they could not legally operate in China as a result, Google shuttered Google.cn and told Chinese internet users they can use Google search at google.com.hk.

Much has already been said of the ramifications surrounding this turn of events, of the potential good and harm it has done, to freedom and to mainland Chinese netizens. I won’t rehash them here. I do, however, want to take a look at how things are now, several months later, and revisit some of the things we had openly anticipated and feared.

The Chinese Government Hasn’t Blocked Google Since It Left…

In the days and weeks following Google’s unilateral decision to follow through on its threat to no longer censor Google.cn by dismantling it and redirecting to google.com.hk, many of us sat here nervously awaiting the Chinese government’s response. We were all waiting to see if the Chinese government would censor Google search completely for Chinese netizens by blocking google.com.hk and any other Google search property. We were waiting to see if the Chinese government would throw a hissy fit and “punish” Google by blocking more than just search but also many of Google’s other famously practical and useful services like GMail and its then-recently-released Google Buzz.

The Chinese government did neither, showing a measure of restraint widely unexpected by many of its critics. Others rationalized that any additional theatrics from the government’s side would only hurt the government more, by drawing more attention to their censorship policies, something that is begrudgingly assented to but still largely unpopular. To this day, Chinese internet users can still access Google internet search by typing in Google.cn and being redirected to google.com.hk.

Some of us, including myself, thought the Chinese government would revoke Google.cn domain name (it can directly control the registration for .cn domain names). Doing so would disrupt the Google.cn to google.com.hk redirect that gave some superficial semblance of Google still being available “in China”. As long as mainland users could type “google.cn” and reach an actual Google search engine, it would seem like Google was still available in China as usual. I figured if Google wasn’t going to play by the government’s censorship rules, the government may not opt to completely ban Google but it wouldn’t do Google any favors by letting them keep a functioning redirect to maintain that superficial semblance. I was wrong.

Maybe the reasons are technical. There remain quite a few non-search-related Google services1 tied to and still accessible under the google.cn domain name despite the top-level domain name itself being redirected to google.com.hk. Maybe revoking the entire domain name would cause too many problems for these remaining services. Maybe the government reasoned to eliminating the redirect would also draw more unwanted attention that wasn’t worth disrupting the superficial semblance Google is maintaining. Maybe they just don’t care as much as we thought they would.

But Baidu Has Gotten Stronger…

While Google hasn’t been categorically blocked and Chinese internet users are still free to use most of Google’s services (including — albeit still censored — internet search), one thing that everyone expected did indeed come to pass: Baidu benefiting from losing its only serious rival. A month following the end of Google.cn saw Google’s China marketshare drop nearly 13% while Baidu’s market share increased around 9.6%. While Baidu’s stock rose 14%, Google’s dropped 12%.

Comparison of Google and Baidu stock following Google's announcement to shut down China internet search operations.

Part of Baidu’s increases here were due first to the uncertainty of Google staying in the mainland China search market and then to Google leaving. However, much of it is because Baidu’s services work just fine. In fact, they clearly provide enough utility for the majority of Chinese internet users to continue using them. It isn’t a stretch to acknowledge that at least some of Baidu’s success is actually legitimate, as a result of its own good decisions and positioning for available opportunities. It isn’t a stretch to also acknowledge that some of Baidu’s success is a direct result of Google not making good decisions and not being positioned for the same available opportunities. However much Baidu has benefited from offering pirated music, questionable government interference, or even any conscious home-team bias the Chinese market can be accused of, no company becomes so successful without at least some competency. You can blame market inertia or even market ignorance but no matter what you say, it will never change the basic fact that Baidu has thus far read and played its market more successfully than its competitors. Life isn’t fair.

Therefore, what I am about to say next is mostly me viewing Baidu through my own colored-lenses, which are admittedly heavily influenced by Google and how Google has treated me as an internet user. So no, I’m not being fair, but I am being honest.

And Baidu Is Fucking Garbage

No one fears Baidu seriously threatening Google’s dominance outside of the domestic Chinese market, but a good deal of people outside of Baidu and Baidu’s investors have good reason to lament Baidu’s success and any extra success at the expense of Google’s departure. Why? Because Baidu doesn’t just engage in ethically questionable business practices, but does so without any apparent sense of shame.

Baidu CEO Robin Li.

Robin Li, you may be rich, powerful, Western-educated, and Western-financed but you're still a dick!

Google, of course, is far from a saint, but I’ll go out on a limb and argue that the average person actually has to dig to find any dirt on Google, the kind of dirt that has clearly negative impacts upon both the individual and broader society that depends on its services. In contrast, for Baidu, all it takes is a single search to see shady business practices that systematically mislead and exploit its users.

At the end of March, after Google’s departure, well-known entrepreneur Marc van der Chijs remarked:

One big difference between Baidu and Google is how the paid results are mixed with organic search results. Both sites insert paid results, but Google gives them a yellow background so that it’s clear that they are different from the normal search results. Baidu does not do that, they look exactly the same as normal results, except for the characters 推广(tui guang) after the ad. Normal results have 白度快照 (Baidu kuai zhao). Of course the average Chinese netizen probably does not know this.

This is nothing new, they have done this for a long time already. But what changed over the past few weeks, is that they now don’t sell 2 or 3 paid positions, but for some keywords up to 10 positions! For example, if you do a search for the Chinese word for game (游戏), the first 10 results are all paid results. If you look at the screen shot for the search I did, you only see paid results, both on the left and right side. Not one organic result pops up on the main page. [...]

I think that Baidu is able to do this only because it’s a quasi-monopolist now. With Google gone to Hong Kong they suddenly have the whole search engine market for themselves. If you are annoyed by their search results you don’t have a good alternative.

Two months later today, it is the same situation:

Baidu's first 10 search results for 游戏 (games) are all paid advertisements. Could you tell?

Every single one of those “results” (on the left side) are paid advertisements. While the advertisements have changed since March, there are still 10 of them nearly indistinguishable from the organic (ranked according to the search engine’s relevancy algorithms) results buried below them. Compare that to the paid advertisements that may be placed within Google’s results:

Google search results for "好玩游戏" (fun game).

Notice the subtle but distinct background color difference, the explicit “Sponsored Links” disclaimer, and how the paid results are formatted differently from organic results, with the website URL coming before the description, and a noticeably  shorter description length.

Yes, Baidu has the right to sell and insert as many ads as it wants to fund its service, make a living. Furthermore, to be fair, not all of the search results Baidu offers up are plagued with this sort of “advertisement posing as legitimate search result” phenomenon either. Just many of the most popular and basic keywords.

Last night, in a conference call with analysts, Baidu unveiled its response: A new system that more clearly separates its paid links from ordinary search results.

“We are doing this because we care. It is important to us. We want to be a responsible corporate citizen,” said Baidu chief executive Robin Li.

This conference call was from November…2008. Prior to it, Baidu had been “exposed” by CCTV, China’s state television broadcaster, for featuring advertisements just like those above that led to scam websites. Getting your money cheated is one thing, but imagine getting medical services from the unlicensed hospitals or ingesting any medicine from the unlicensed pharmaceutical companies that have paid their way to the top of Baidu’s search results. Imagine getting fleeced while having an abortion.

Nearly two years later, not only has Baidu not evidenced any “care” to be a “responsible corporate citizen”2, it has sold more of its search results to companies and scammers, is still regularly accused of manipulating or censoring its search results for companies suffering PR disasters, and has only become emboldened by Google’s departure.

I’m very understanding about the desire to make money. I’m not very understanding about the willingness to deceive people, to do so. Even if they’re fools.  As such, I have little tolerance for the scam operations, deceptive advertising, and companies that knowingly facilitate others doing such for a cut of the profits, which is exactly what Baidu is doing, knowingly.

So…I’m Torn

On one hand, I’m happy that my worst fears of Google being categorically blocked in China were not realized. On the other hand, I’m still deeply disappointed and aggravated by what I see as Baidu largely having free reign over the Chinese internet search market, and all because Google isn’t making any serious efforts to fight them for it.

Natalie Imbruglia

Yeah, not me.

No, I don’t like that Google has to self-censor to do so, but I don’t like the idea of Baidu getting away with all of these antics without a real competitor to challenge it, a competitor providing and promoting to Chinese netizens a different search experience, one where search results aren’t potential landmines. I don’t like that Chinese netizens aren’t being fought for by Google, and being educated in the process, educated that business can be done differently.

I felt that Google having an active, dedicated presence in China explicitly seeking to serve the mainland Chinese market and all its quirks and obstacles at least communicated good faith to Chinese netizens. Google was saying, “I’ll meet you halfway so we can play together”. It made the “Google alternative” less like foreign fruit only foreigners can enjoy and more a real alternative to Baidu, to Baidu’s search results, to Baidu’s shady business practices.

Yes, its selfish, selfish to think Google ought to compromise something it cares about for what I think is a greater good it can do right now for a lot of people I think need to see that it can be done. But that’s how I feel. A less censored and more free internet is definitely desirable, but if we can’t get everything we want at the same time, if we have to fight our battles one at a time, I do feel that a more transparent and less scammy set of search results contributes a whole lot of good towards furthering the development and sophistication of China’s businesses and consumers3. It just so happens that more sophisticated Chinese businesses and consumers would be the kind of troops needed in future battle for less censorship and more freedom. One step at a time.

True, by virtue of still being accessible within mainland China, Google in Hong Kong is still an “alternative”, but having left the Chinese market also — however unfairly or irrelevantly or inadvertently — communicated that their way doesn’t work in China, that their way doesn’t work for China, that their way doesn’t work with the Chinese people. It taught the people to lose hope, to resign themselves to Baidu, that Baidu’s way of doing things is the only way to succeed in China. That’s not true and good examples of it not being true are needed to remind people that its not true. Maybe this is an exaggeration, but the best way to counter the 没办法4 is to show someone there is a 办法5.

Google in Hong Kong is different from Google in China. With the former, its easy to say “well, Hong Kong is different” and it is. With the latter, there’s one less tired excuse.

Of course, it may even be short-sighted of me, to have placed so much hope and faith on an enlightened monarch, on Google being that “good” example. After all, Google’s motto is “Do no evil”, not “Do good” nor “Be a good example”, right? For all we know, Google might become fucking garbage the very moment it achieves incontestable global internet search dominance. Who knows? It could happen. They’re human, or Ozymandias.

Hell, is it even fair to ask a company to save a market from its less scrupulous competitors? From their own gullibility? That’s what governments are for, right? Hell, sometimes people should be allowed to suffer their own mistakes. Sometimes, that’s the only way they’ll ever learn. I’ve argued as much for a number of things. But if Google can be the “champion of freedom” for others, it can at least be a “good example of better business practices” for me, dammit.

Ah, Catharsis

Yes, this is all crying over spilled milk. It isn’t possible for Google to re-enter the Chinese search market now. It can’t re-enter until there has been enough change on the censorship to avoid further suspicion and resentment amongst Chinese users. Therefore, I’m more or less ranting and whining about what I wish had not happened, kinda sorta unfairly blaming Google for what fucking garbage Baidu was, is, and will foreseeably continue to be.

Crying over spilled milk.

It is indeed paternalistic of me, but I do think Google still being around as a good example and solid competitor would have contributed to the faster development of China and the Chinese people, and toward mainstream norms and ideals that are shared with much of the rest of the world. This setback isn’t likely to change the overall direction of China’s integration with the larger dominant world community, but I still don’t like that people are getting conned now and Baidu is enjoying any success as a result. Many disagree with me on what Google should or shoudn’t have done, but with Baidu, I’m probably preaching to the choir.


  1. Such as maps, music, and translation. []
  2. Okay, maybe that’s not true. It has probably created plenty of jobs for the Chinese. []
  3. For the record, I don’t think this is a racial or cultural issue, as some are wont to declare. []
  4. mei ban fa, there’s no way to avoid something or do otherwise. []
  5. ban fa, a way []



33 Comments

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  1. bai ren

    -++1

    Yea the Chinese government hasn’t out rightly blocked Google. But it has practiced a little mud slinging. In Chinese type in “study lei Feng” “how to make carrot soup” or “what is the tempreture in Shanghai” (all dont by another adventurous blogger) and see yourself blocked. Then immediatly try to goto google.ca, or .uk or something else and find your self blocked again. Wait a few munites after your rebel rousing and all will be fine again.

    Yea Baidu doesnt suit me for a search engine either, but im not limited to chinese. Talking to a middle school student here who uses the internet to study she said she very infrequently used google because there would be too much English in her search results. I dont often use google to search in Chinese so I dont know what kind of preventitive barrier lnaguage is on it.

    But now ask why. Why google as the alternitive? because it held a third market share before leaving? Altavista started earlier… but then lost trust of users by giving email accounts to authorities to prosecute bloggers. How about Bing or… damn my imagination is limited here… but the point is lets not champion google, lets challange others to come to the forefront.

    good issue to bring up. dont want our short attention spans to fade and foget.

    but know what im waiting for? QQ search! a QQ and facebook merger! LONG LIVE THE DIGITAL FARMER!

    • -+

      Agree, it doesn’t have to be Google (and now it obviously can’t). Google just has the best track-record and thus gives more confidence of future success. You know how it is, it’s difficult to fight your way up as an underdog against entrenched competition, which Baidu is. But definitely, there can be champions for better practices other than Google.

    • B-real

      -+

      google is great with a VPN. But with out it I can’t even get good results from the words mohawk?

      Whats the deal with blocking the oddest of shit searches?

      • bai ren

        -+

        there are key characters such as ‘hu’ ‘wen’ and ‘xue” which are part of the names of three of the main leaders in China’s government. are these key character searches not allowed because the leaders fear ppl may uncover dirt on them? or is just a way to make their presence known? i dare not say

  2. lolz

    -+

    Baidu does suck big time. I heard people say that it’s good for music piracy but it can’t even do it that well.

    However I am optimistic that someone in China will create a good opposition to Baidu because there is a demand for change.

  3. King Tubby

    -++1

    Lets get real exact here. Baidu is Chinese business practice writ large.

    And since the op piece mentioned dodgy hospitals and drug companies paying for position, if you really want to compound an existing medical condition, visit a Chinese hospital…something akin to a cattle yard and Belsen. And western drug companies are also heavily involved in this pig slop which represents itself as Chinese health care.

    More like the health mafia, and I will spare you the anecdotes.

    Chinese doctors know f….a… about anatomy, physiology, virology(sic), immunology and all other aspects of knowledge required for half-decent decent health repair. In fact, they are pure unadulterated scum.

    Spent months teaching medical English in Long Hua not far from the Foxconn factory, due to my working past and died laughing.

    Self-diagnosis is normally a dangerous activity, but in China it is the healthiest option.

    • bai ren

      -+-1

      tubby,
      iv had a few diagnostic experiances in chinese hosptials… my experiance has been that they upsell. Have such and such problem, well let us re3ccommend the luxury treatment bla bla bla.

      I am also very skeptical of their extensive use of iv antibiotics, got an antibiotic immune virus pandamic, bet you it will come from china

      but i didnt think that they were THAT far behind when it comes to medical treatment such as surgery etc.

      Chinese med docs kick bloody ass when you get the good ones.

      any sourses to learn moer about this oh sage of the post board?

      • King Tubby

        -+

        Bai ren. Your spelling is appalling…. childhood inheritance?????

        No. Chinese so-called doctors are very good at ceasarian sections. Does your wife wear a bikini at the beach?

      • King Tubby

        -+

        Bai ren. While we are on the spelling curve, lets go for the honorific King Tubby, okay. Then you will be a fully fledged and accepted member of the literate community.

        BTW. All your points were my non-included anecdotes.
        Dig your later.

        • bai ren

          -+-1

          alas my sovereign
          yes, the spelling problem is one I have had since Childhood. I rely upon modern technology such as spell check, and google when spell check fails to give me an appropriate alternative to get me through a ba and now a mapps. western education does not care about route memorization and this can be seen in my generations ability to spell. you should beg the question about our ability to effectively apply our creativity to aptly solve problems.
          regardless. as far as the practice of western medicine goes in china. I have been treated no worse no better with a chro9nic stress condition here than in canada. furthermore when I was on some weired medicine and had the ill fate to realize that the ‘winking eye’ on the side of the prescription was not a suggestion (okay so the med warnings here are not the same as in canada or the us) but an actual warning about effects on heart rate I was properly treated… with cheaper med when chinese friends spoke up on my side about not using the $$$ med. the difference between the two medicines was most likely intellectual property rights and the hospital’s ability to profit.

          and as for your ‘socalled’ chinese doctors, around 10% the cost of equally trained as western practicing doctors and far more effective. that stress condition I mentioned, treated and for 2 years no more chronic reappearances.\
          now maybe I was cured through the powerful ability of placebo. if so I accredit them for having a placebo that works across cultural barriers because I personally am as skeptical of their use of treatments as I am of so called western scientific error and trial medicine practiced at the level of expertise.

          this comes to you via email spell check as sadly… or elitist my posts from china have no red underlined misspelled words.

          • bai ren

            -+

            effects of beer etc on one’s heart rate
            the winking eye a ref ot a great show

          • King Tubby

            -+-1

            Didn’t understand a word of your post. Buy a good paper OED…in fact we should all throw in a dollar to assist your literacy/spelling curve.

            You probably think your prose problems are of little consequence. I don’t. You simply degrade your arguments with your limited writing skills.

            I’m probably old school, and don’t feel the need to slip into text message English.

            I’m glad I’m not on the receiving end of your CV. It must read something like a DPROK news announcement written under the influence of horse tranquilliser.

            Playa might be a pain, but he writes you under the table every time and in his second language.

            Yes, let’s all celebrate illiteracy in our native tongue.

            And your understanding of the so-called Chinese healthcare system is zero.

          • bai ren

            -+

            Burn,
            Haveing a hard time to remain relevant in a world where the young critical and creative are overtaking you?

            poor king tubby. Should I degrade myself to the rules of the playground and attack your person? Should I question that you title yourself king because you use your avatar to stroke your ego which has been beaten down in the real world? Naaaa.

            You often have interesting things to say so praise to the king. and i find it unfortunate that instead of addressing the topic and continuing a discussion you chose to attack.

    • lolz

      -+

      There are plenty of good doctors in China. It’s just that the good ones are more costly. There are generally two systems in China, the free one and the one which you pay premium to receive better service. The free one sucks but the premium service is good with competent doctors, and the price is around 1/6th that of US healthcare.

      My parents stay in Shanghai hospitals at least a few times a year for variety of reasons (food poisoning is a common one). So far they have only had good experiences. The rate for hospital stay there was something like 2kRMB per day, which is a steal compared to the US where typical hospital stays are over 2kUSD per day. My dad recently was ordered to do some scan for his heart by the Chinese doctor after complaining about accelerated heart beat. For a second opinion he took the findings to his primary doctor in the US. The US doctor agreed with the Chinese doctor’s analysis and added that in the US it would be almost impossible to get all of this information because these heart scans would of cost over $10kUSD. Insurance companies would cover only a portion so most people choose not to go through to get all of the procedures.

      • bai ren

        -+

        so in both systems we may have doctors advising against the stats to do procedures they will profit from? Sounds like china is learning fast from neoliberalism

        • King Tubby

          -+

          Bai ren. Relevance. In your dreams.

          However, I have sympathy for you literacy deficit. You are a foot soldier without a full grasp of the alpahabet. The welfare state where I live provides for people for you…. night courses … at my tax paying expense I should add. Dig ya later.

          • bai ren

            -+

            yes dig me later, I am sure.

            Foot soldier? come on sexy lets duke it out. but person against person? this is no fun. idea versus idea, interpretation versus interpretation. here I will meet you.

  4. -+

    I have to love all the hand wringing about Baidu/Google – but if anyone here has been reading sources like the Reg (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/06/04/bing_cashback_dead/) – one would be asking a question that has not been touched – How much of the baidu search data (i.e. what people type in at search field at the first page) is being directly monitored by the CCP?

    Forget if the information is blocked – I do believe that the CCP wants to know who is trying to access that information.

  5. -+

    I was doing some business in Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Shanghai recently that required me to visit several companies. I sneakily looked at what average people — office staff, hotel help desk, etc. — were using. It was generally Chinese-language Google.
    There was nothing political — just people seeking addresses, contacts, information, or just having it as their homepage.
    Anyway, nice post. I laughed out loud when you started swearing at Baidu in large-font bold.

    • King Tubby

      -+

      Hey Joyce. Hang in here. This site needs more women posters.

      • -+

        Dammit, King Tubby, stop trying to pick up chicks on china/divide!

        • bai ren

          -+

          got to agree with king tubby on this one. we have too much of a gender divide here. there are many ways to communicate and think, and men mostly try to pull out and have a whose bigger compeitition

        • King Tubby

          -+

          Kai. I was being dead serious here. This site is too blokey. (As for meeting girls on CD, keep it down as I don’t want to end up sleeping on the sofa.)

          • -+

            LoL, yeah, and I was just teasin’ ya. I’m all for more ladies so Jones can shake his stick at more people. ;)

            Oh dear, I think Jones and I just made all 3 girls that follow china/divide roll their eyes into the back of their heads, thereby setting our “more ladies” mission back 3 steps.

          • Kris78

            -+

            Nah, we’re still here. And laughing.

        • Jones

          -+

          Yeah, we need a bit more divide on the sexes here. There’s too many guys to “shake a stick at”, a-har-har-har

        • -+

          Sorry, King Tubby. I’m married. :)

          • King Tubby

            -+-2

            So am I, Joyce. Dual wives who can cook (I do dishes and tons of housework) and they also provide pretty sharp conversation, and also beat me up when I drink too much. The mortgages are killing me, however.
            I need a good financial adviser.
            Cheers KT.

  6. Zuo Ai

    -+

    “– com­mu­ni­cated that their way doesn’t work in China, that their way doesn’t work for China, that their way doesn’t work with the Chi­nese peo­ple. It taught the peo­ple to lose hope, to resign them­selves to Baidu, that Baidu’s way of doing things is the only way to suc­ceed in China.”

    I would say swap “China” for “CCP” in there

Continuing the Discussion