Kai-Fu Lee

Here is the best story we’ve read so far about Google’s entry into China, a 10-page opus written by Clive Thompson for the upcoming issue of the NYT Magazine. Here are a few summarizing thoughts:

The piece resonates with our own impressions during a trip to China a few months ago. It opens with a sketch of Kai-Fu Lee, the guy Google has hired to run its Chinese operations. The feeling you get is that this guy is one powerful antidote to any negative feelings fanned against Google by local Chinese competitor, Baidu. Baidu has tried to whip up nationalist antagonism by portraying Google as an American white-man imperialist.

But Google’s Lee has become somewhat of a celebrity, leading religious-like tent revivals. At one lecture, scalpers sold tickets for $60 apiece. At another event, Thompson reports, an audience of 8,000 showed up. You wouldn’t see that happen here in Silicon Valley, even with our most popular tech evangelist, John Doerr.

And Lee appeals to the Chinese in ways that perhaps most Americans can’t understand. The Chinese students Lee meets and employs, he tells Thomson, do not hunger for democracy.

“People are actually quite free to talk about the subject,” he added, meaning democracy and human rights in China. “I don’t think they care that much. I think people would say: ‘Hey, U.S. democracy, that’s a good form of government. Chinese government, good and stable, that’s a good form of government. Whatever, as long as I get to go to my favorite Web site, see my friends, live happily.’ “

We experienced the same sentiment among journalists during our visit (scroll down).

Thompson’s reporting shows just how far the Chinese government has reached to help Baidu, to Google’s detriment — by finding ways to slap users of Google on the wrist, slowing down its Web site, etc. He explains how China’s Internet depends on three main fiber-optic pipelines running across its borders, each of which are plugged with specially configured “router” switches that filter content — built, ironically, by Cisco Systems, an American firm — and serving as China’s censors.

The piece also confirms more graphically what we’ve reported before about Baidu’s initial appeal. Almost one-fifth of Baidu’s traffic comes from searching for unlicensed MP3’s that would be illegal in the United States — much of it from the U.S. artists, for example, 50 Cent.

There is good color, too, on another part of Chinese business culture we experienced: No email.

Chinese businesspeople, for example, rarely rely on e-mail, because they find the idea of leaving messages to be socially awkward. They prefer live exchanges, which means they gravitate to mobile phones and short text messages instead.

Finally, the piece mentions something we didn’t pick up on while there, about Yahoo. It cites one of China’s top bloggers: The Chinese people hate Yahoo because it has put individual dissidents in serious danger “apparently without thinking much about the human damage.” The Chinese can understand Google, at least, because it compromised in a way that didn’t do that. And this story, hot off the presses about yet another dissident jailed, won’t help Yahoo.