Baidu.com's director of international communications on Baidu’s embrace of international markets, China’s digital landscape, censorship and more.
How does your job as director of international communications support Baidu in their strategic goals?
The fact that my function is housed within the investor relations department is significant. Baidu is listed on NASDAQ, and most of our investors as well as our covering analysts live in the anglophone world. Naturally, the messaging that comes from my team needs to align with our investor relations goals. It’s also significant that my function is quite separate from domestic public relations, and that I report to our chief financial officer rather than to our vice president of marketing. What interests the Chinese media and its readership about Baidu and the internet industry more generally isn’t the same at all as what interests the anglophone media and its reading public. The issues that I face, the messaging that I push and the approach I take in my relationships with media outlets all contrast starkly with those of my counterparts on the domestic public relations team. My focus is on making sure that the people who matter to us outside of China know Baidu to be the well governed, technologically innovative, business-smart company that it is. Because we’re now entering other markets, that’s becoming even more important. And it adds important goals to my work, like raising our profile as an employer and burnishing our employer brand for the kind of research and development talent that we’re on the hunt for in places like Silicon Valley
Where does Baidu fit in to China’s digital landscape?
Baidu remains very much at the heart of the digital landscape in China, because so much activity online – whether on the PC-based internet or the vitally important mobile web – starts with search. Many if not most people outside of China are unfamiliar with Baidu’s approach to search, and so they don’t realise how central we are to so much of online activity here in this market. For the overwhelming majority of search queries, we don’t return a mere list of algorithmically-ranked hypertext links that a user then clicks away to. Instead, we deliver extremely useful structured data, content, services and even applications right there in your search results page, usually at the very top. So if you’re looking for a song you want to hear, just type or better yet say its name along with the artist’s name too and it pops right up with a play button and the lyrics, so you can sing along if that’s your thing. If you search for a game, or your query is something best satisfied with an app, you get that game or relevant app – or at the very least, easy links to the appropriate app store – right at the top of results. It’s a very different way of resolving search queries than what’s on offer from most other popular search engines. And it’s an approach that is making Baidu even more central to the online experience. Baidu’s approach to search holds out the tantalising possibility that search can actually supplant and even obviate mobile operating systems as we know them today: you’ll only need a search box, and whatever you’re looking for – web-based apps, native apps, activating your phone’s camera, sending a text or instant messaging, anything you want to do at all – will be there at your command.
You’ve said in a recent interview that “search complements social media very, very well”. Could you fill us in on Baidu’s work in this bringing the two together?
When I said that I was referring mainly to the fact that most social media has truly awful search capabilities. If I want to find something I posted four years ago on a social site, it is challenging with today’s search. Alas, social media sites sometimes regard search players with a bit of suspicion, but I think there are obvious areas where mutual benefit could be readily had. For us, we’ve incorporated social results in what we think are appropriate places: people want social results, we find, when they’re looking for things like breaking news, or for trending terms. Offering social results for other categories of query is often not the best approach, so we’re selective.
China has close to 700 million internet users. Do Chinese people use or expect different things from online search functions?
Yes, I think Chinese people have come to expect very different things from search engines. I’ve already outlined Baidu’s approach to resolving queries – delivering more direct results, including content and apps. What is important to add is that this approach really grew out of our understanding the preferences and needs of our users, the overwhelming majority of whom are of course Chinese. They tend to search more often than their counterparts in western markets do for things like television shows, music files, e-books and other digital content they can consume directly, so we give them what they want. And they tend to expect a search engine to be able to resolve a query in natural language – in a full sentence, rather than with individual words. That’s actually been a real impetus for innovation for us, and natural language processing is one area in which we’ve really excelled because of our heavy investment in Deep Learning, an approach to artificial intelligence that has yielded terrific results.
How has Chinese censorship changed during the course of your career?
China is full of paradoxes and one of the big ones is that while it’s absolutely true that the internet has gotten bigger, louder and more freewheeling in many ways, it is just as true that restrictions have also gotten more severe. In the last five or six years things have really tightened, especially as social media platforms have become so popular. That same popularity of social platforms has also seen the emergence of an unprecedented public sphere, where very vocal and often quite critical discourse still happens. The extent of controls aside, the focus of them has clearly shifted: there is much less concern with, say, search results but there is much greater concern over social media platforms, where the potential for fast dissemination is much higher. After all, what’s someone going to do with a search result? Email it to a few friends, maybe – but it’s not like a Weibo post, or even a Weixin post, which has tremendous potential for virality.
Are there positive arguments for censorship?
I wouldn’t say there are “positive” arguments that I would expect anyone raised in the liberal democracies of the west to buy into, but I do think there are historical realities that, if understood and pondered, might help people from outside of China better understand Beijing’s thinking on this issue. For one, consider that in the west, the idea of freedom of the press on which opposition to censorship is founded is itself 230-odd years old, gaining currency in the Enlightenment in the latter half of the 18th century and finding its first institutional expression in the First Amendment to the US constitution. But how fast did information travel in 1791? What was the literacy rate? When the floodgates of information freedom were flung open back then, sure there were “dangerous ideas” in the air, and sure, some of the pamphlets then being written and carried about on horseback and read by a tiny minority of mostly landed males would have been regarded as seditious by crowned heads. But fast forward in time to 2014, when in China you have nigh on 700 million people online, and nearly half a billion people all carrying around in their purses and pockets a device capable of sending voice, text, photos and even video around the world instantaneously. There is a whole lot more water behind the floodgates, one must agree, and it doesn’t strike me as sinister or flat-out wrong for a leader in Beijing to conclude that a gradualist approach in opening those floodgates would be preferable to flinging them open and hoping for the best. I think that informed empathy is what we must strive for. Empathy doesn’t require one to abdicate one’s values, only to understand what factors might have caused reasonable people with altogether different sets of historical, cultural, economic and social inputs to have arrived at theirs.
Do you foresee a complete reversal of censorship in China within your lifetime?
I suppose that depends on how long I think my lifetime will be. If I have an average American male lifespan (and living in Beijing may have knocked a few years off of that), then no, I don’t think a complete reversal or negation is at all likely.
As an American-Chinese, how do you characterise the current state of the sino-west relationship?
That’s an enormous question, and a terse answer can’t do it justice. The way you’ve phrased it is somewhat problematic: I don’t think “the west” is entirely monolithic in its relationship with China, though there are certainly commonalities in the issues that various western states have with China. And the state of the relationship is rather different depending on whether you’re talking about it at a state-to-state or a people-to-people level. But those objections aside, it is certainly a fraught relationship, where the kind of informed empathy I think is so badly needed is in pitifully short supply on all sides. At the same time, there is a level of economic and even physical integration without parallel in other historical situations where an existing great power structure has had to accommodate a fast-rising power. I think this will go very far toward mitigating anything catastrophic.
Last year, you took part in an European marketing conference raising awareness about opportunities in China. What can outside companies offer China?
I don’t think it was at all about raising awareness about opportunities in China – those are well known to any company in Europe – but rather about helping those companies familiarize themselves with the resources Baidu has to offer them as they seek to expand markets in China. Chinese consumers are still at a stage where they’re very eager to learn about how the preferences and lifestyles of people in the developed world, who many Chinese regard consciously or otherwise as more sophisticated and refined in their tastes.
How would you describe China’s role in the Asia-Pacific region?
That’s another rather absurdly big question but I’ll bite. By virtue of its sheer size – its appetite for resources, its economic clout, its population, its military might – China can’t be ignored in any conceivable conversation in the region any more than that US can. China is the country where this grand experiment in globalisation is really playing out. It is arguably the country that has benefited most from globalisation, but also the country where the collateral damage is most conspicuous – environmental degradation, export dependency and imbalanced growth, income inequality and so forth. China is like an enormous supertanker cobbled together out of some very old and very new parts, hung together in places with duct tape and clothes hangers, equipped in other places with very advanced gear. This outsize ship, bulging to capacity with passengers, is hurtling forward toward and requires a very deft and steady hand at the wheel if it’s going to make the complex maneuverers it needs to make. The entire region, indeed the entire world, has a huge stake in seeing that it makes it through the treacherous waters ahead.
Earlier on in your career, you worked as a freelance journalist and editor covering the tech and digital scene in China; now it could be said you’re at or close to the heart of China’s digital scene. How did you manage this transition from observer to leader?
I was fortunate that my first job in the internet here in China, as editor-in-chief at a now-defunct startup called ChinaNow.com, straddled the editorial and the entrepreneurial. I got to know many of the early internet folks here, but I was also writing and editing for a living. From there I could segue fairly easily into writing on the tech scene in China. From writing on tech to doing in-house communications for internet firms – first Youku, then Baidu – was also a pretty natural transition. It’s a huge stretch for anyone to call me a leader, and sheer hubris for me to think of myself that way. I still regard what I do at Baidu as more observer than actual participant. I have to stay abreast of what is happening at one of the fastest-growing companies in one of the most dynamic industries in the world’s most rapidly changing company. Being able to observe that, to take it all in and communicate what I see, is plenty for me!