For China, even a censored Google search engine would be better than Baidu

Bai Tongdong says even though Google would not offer the Chinese people unfettered access to information through its ‘Dragonfly’ search engine, it would still be better than the available alternatives

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 October, 2018, 2:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 October, 2018, 6:33am

Reports that Google has been working on a version of its search engine, code-named “Dragonfly”, that can meet the censorship criteria of the Chinese government provoked a huge backlash from Google employees and the American public that was aware of the development – that is, a very small part of the US population. Google was seen to be kowtowing to an authoritarian government and violating the company’s unofficial motto “don’t be evil”, a slogan that was removed from its code of conduct in May.

The irony is that the news was welcomed by ordinary Chinese, like “the delight of rain after a long drought”, to use a Chinese idiom. The news has not, of course, been officially reported, but the excitement has been palpable on social media in China.

In response, Li Yanhong, the CEO of Baidu, the company behind China’s most popular search engine, posted on his WeChat account that Google’s return would give Baidu the opportunity to “win one more time”. The comment was mercilessly ridiculed. Chinese internet users don’t seem convinced that Google’s retreat from China was due to fair but powerful competition from Baidu.

Rather, Baidu has profited greatly from Google’s retreat, dominating, if not monopolising, the search engine space in China. Partly due to this quasi-monopoly, Baidu’s search engine often shamelessly yields to profit-driven results.

After Li’s statement, a widely circulated post showed how, if you search for the Chinese word that can be roughly translated as “tender” in English, the top Baidu results are “tender-looking” (voluptuous) women and their thinly veiled “tender” body parts, whereas the top Google results are what you would expect – how to keep chicken tender when cooking it, for example.

After reading this post, I did similar comparisons but Baidu’s search results seemed normal. Perhaps Baidu fixed its algorithm after the post went viral on social media or maybe the post was merely a joke. But, even if it was, it is a joke that is not far from reality.

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As a college professor, I find Baidu’s search results on scholarly matters deeply frustrating, because they don’t lead me to the webpages I wish to find. In contrast, Google’s search results are far more useful. Thanks to my part-time employment at New York University’s law school, I can use its virtual private networks (VPN) to access Google, a benefit that I consider more valuable than the extra pay.

And it is not just terrible search results, and the lack of access to useful tools such as Google Books. Baidu’s shameless commercialisation of its search engine has been the subject of controversy. For example, companies could – and maybe still can – bid for the top spots in Baidu’s search results, and users are not warned that these results are the outcome of commercial bidding and not sorted by relevance, as is the practice with Google.

In one case that sparked a public outcry, a young man used Baidu to search for treatments and clinics for the rare form of the cancer he suffered from. The man’s family spent over 200,000 yuan (US$29,000) on an experimental treatment at one of the for-profit hospitals that topped his Baidu search, but the treatment was unsuccessful and he died. The search results could have caused him to miss potentially life-saving treatment.

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Therefore, what could be at stake here is not merely the convenience that search engines offer me as a scholar, but life itself. The reason that many Americans are against Google’s return to China is their opposition to the lack of democracy and free speech in China, with Google’s censored search engine seen to be pandering to these ills. But isn’t it ironic that these Americans fail to consider how Chinese people feel?

Democracy-loving and Google-using Americans are actually deciding the fate of Chinese internet users – isn’t that paternalism?

The Chinese are the ones who suffer from the lack of access to Google. Democracy-loving and Google-using Americans are actually deciding the fate of Chinese internet users – isn’t that paternalism, or worse, a “let them eat cake” attitude?

To be sure, the return of a censored version of Google won’t offer free access to information, but it will offer better information. The increased competition would force Baidu to shape up or lose out.

It is also possible that, instead of improving Baidu, the move to China might drag Google down. But it is a US-based company that has its own values or is at least open to the pressure of those values. Although China is a big market, Google can survive without it. Therefore, it can always pull out, as it did last time, if the moral compromise it is forced to make is considered too great, unlike the China-based Baidu. If it had to retreat from China again, at least the company would have tried, and the situation won’t be worse than it is today, when China has no access to Google at all.

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Some argue that Google’s return is an appeasement of censorship and the regime behind it. These accusations are not totally unfounded. A reason that many American companies and intellectuals haven’t objected forcefully to US President Donald Trump’s trade war with China is that, although they consider the trade war wrong-headed, they share his frustration over the lack of anticipated political and market reforms in China, reforms that were used as a justification for China being offered more market access and other benefits.

But the simple fact is that, although it has been years since Google exited China, nothing much has changed or is expected to change for better in those areas. While the situation can’t worsen, there is a chance that Google might prompt an improvement.

In a world in which the only choices available are between the purely good and the purely evil, that is, in a world that has never existed and will never exist, “do no evil” would be a good guiding principle. In the world we live in though, the practical motto should be “do the lesser evil”. For, after all, a morally compromised Google is still better than Baidu.

Bai Tongdong is a professor of philosophy at Fudan University in China and a global professor of law at NYU’s Law School