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What does the Chinese tech community think of Google’s controversial plan to uncensor search and possibly leave the country?
I talked to several Chinese entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who were part of a delegation that coincidentally visited the Googleplex yesterday morning. (Awkward!)
Most thought that the Chinese government wouldn’t budge on censorship and that Google’s threat wouldn’t have much of an impact on the local startup scene. The one China-based CEO who was truly sympathetic to Google’s position didn’t quite seem to grasp how central the notion of free speech was to Google’s mission. He suggested a compromise where Google could “auto-protect” people from making certain searches.
Although it’s a small sample, what’s also notable is the divide between how those based in China perceived Google from Chinese citizens who are based here. The few Chinese developers I talked to who had immigrated to the U.S. strongly applauded Google’s ethical stance.
Also, the Chinese government itself responded earlier today. Bloomberg reported that officials brushed off Google’s threat in a question-and-answer session with the press, saying that “effective guidance of public opinion on the Internet is an important way of protecting the security of online information.”
And here’s what investors and entrepreneurs in China had to say:
Jess Wu, Venture Partner at The Chinese Founders Fund:
“Google is trying to escalate a business problem into a political issue. They want an angle so the U.S. government can get involved. They want nation-to-nation talks. Since no dot-coms have really succeeded in China, I actually think they’ve done a good job reaching at least 20 percent market share.
I’ve been talking about this to many friends. It’s OK. It’s no big deal. They all say, ‘Just quit. We don’t care.’ The Chinese government will never back down on the censorship issue. If they do, their power will weaken and they will fall.”
Qiangyu Wang, the CEO of Danqoo, a Beijing-based mobile media sharing startup with 150 employees:
“It’s a very complicated question. In China, there is a different culture.
In China, many people use Google. Many people love Google. It’s a very open and admirable company. It’s a good company with correct values. This is sad. Many people will pity Google if it has to leave.
I think the Chinese government will talk with Google and help it understand. They will give Google advice. Maybe they can find a way to deal with search. For example, maybe there can be keywords that cannot be searched.”
Zhang Ming, technology director of Downjoy, a Beijing-based mobile gaming platform with 100 employees:
“They want to put some pressure on the Chinese government, but they cannot actually leave. Google is not successful in China, so they need a way of relieving that pressure. But the government has its own way of doing things.
I don’t think it affects startups in China. It’s just a business problem. We don’t actually use Google that frequently.”
Victor Huang, vice president of China Renaissance, an investment bank that counts Kaixin001, the country’s answer to Facebook, and Dangdang, its version of Amazon.com, among its clients:
“Why give up so easily? Google is still small here, but China is a very large market.
It’s very unusual for a company to stand against the government. It’s really weird. The U.S. government could support them, but there must be a middle way. China is always about the middle way. I don’t think they will quit. Chinese Internet users will stand up for them. That’s why Baidu got hacked.
Google is not the only company who faces these issues. One of our clients, 51.com, had to stop their services for a week and a half because of content policies. They only came back up yesterday.”
Some declined to publish their name in a Western media outlet. One source, a partner at a Hangzhou-based venture firm focused on health care said:
“China doesn’t care. The government is too powerful. Google has made all kinds of sacrifices in the short-term. They’ll back off for awhile, and then they’ll come back again. China is not a free country, but it still has a lot of venture opportunities. Kai-Fu Lee may have left Google, but he’s still in China with his new incubator. There’s too much opportunity.”
I also talked to a few Chinese expatriates who had left the country for the U.S. and met with the delegation. They only wanted to publish their first names because they were worried about making critical comments of the government publicly.
Dongjin, a developer who immigrated to the U.S. 10 years ago and is now working at a stealth startup:
“To be honest, I support Google. As a big business you can’t just think of making money, without thinking about ethics. We need an external force to make the government more open. There will be repercussions for other tech companies. I hope Microsoft and Yahoo will stand up and do what’s right.
Google can still have Google.com. It’s not filtered and you can access it without the proxy. It’s just that the Chinese government sometimes blocks the address and so users will be inconvenienced and may leave for Baidu.”
Kai Mai, a vice president at a web development startup who moved here 15 years ago:
“In China, there are different stated and unstated rules and regulations that companies must follow.
Much of the attention has been focused on search and the free services offered by google.cn. We should also look at business-facing services such as Google Analytics and AdWords, which are popular in China. So Google pulling out of China completely isn’t just about cutting all of Google.cn’s staff. It’s cutting off the ecosystem.
I don’t understand why Google hasn’t given more control of its China operations to locals. Any multi-national company needs locals who know the culture and have personal relationships to succeed.
Kai-Fu Lee worked hard to partner with local Chinese companies to provide more localized Google services to Chinese. But since he left, everything seems to have gone south. For example, Google got caught showing porn links in search results. Chinese book authors sued Google over book scanning.
We need more than one good search engine player in China. A monopoly isn’t doing anyone any good.”
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