Kaiser Kuo: Baidu and Chinese Innovation

“I was able to make people understand that Baidu is a company that does not labor under the illusion that people would prefer to have censored search results…it does everything in its power to expand the information horizons of normal users of the Chinese Internet.”

Kaiser Kuo spoke to me about his work as Baidu’s Director of International Communications.

“Baidu’s mission is to find the best and most equitable things that people are looking for.”

When Google pulled out of China, the American search leader was celebrated for its uncompromising position on censorship. In the same narrative, Baidu became the opportunistic “black hat”. Baidu cemented itself as the best search engine in China. This would not have been possible without a willingness to negotiate with the government.

“Don’t be dismissive of the argument that stability should, in some circumstances, trump freedom in China,” says Kaiser. “[Stability] resonates with lots and lots of Chinese people, irrespective of how jarring such an assertion might sound to an American or a Briton.”

Kaiser also dismissed the idea of China as a non-innovative fast follower. In the past, this may have been true. Up until very recently, China was imagined more as an agrarian society than a booming center of innovation. But no longer.

“You’re seeing an unfathomably large number of start-ups in Beijing.”

We also discussed the Balkanization of the Internet. When I posited that the Internet is in some ways on a path towards becoming Balkanized, Kaiser pointed out many ways in which the Internet is already broken up into regional subsets. The way the Internet is browsed in China is very different than how it is browsed in America.

“I’ve always seen it as my role to bridge these two worlds. To devote my energies to explaining one to the other whenever possible.”

Kaiser hosts the Sinica Podcast, a show about current affairs in China.

“It’s one of the things I love most in my life right now. I end up reading a lot of books that I otherwise would not have read and exploring issues which I might not have gotten into at the same level of depth.”

I asked Kaiser what one piece of wisdom he would impart to listeners.

“As a bridge-builder type, there’s been an intellectual laziness on the part of Americans. We don’t understand all the things that had to go right for enlightenment values to emerge, and become the norm for Americans. I think that this creates a lot of our problems when we deal with the Islamic world, with China…we have a great deal of difficulty understanding how it is that they don’t leap to embrace all that is wonderful about our civilization.  If people took the time to understand just how contingent that is, that would really go far to helping people get other perspectives.”

“What I always encourage is informed empathy.”

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