Internet search in the world’s most populous country is a bit of a contradiction in terms. If so, then China, known for it’s heavy-handed censorship, may have helped create Baidu in its own image.
“On behalf of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the propaganda bureau of the State Council, you are welcome at Baidu’s headquarters,” ironically proclaims Kaiser Kuo, a former member of Chinese heavy metal band Tang Dynasty and now Baidu’s director for international communications.
“I know a lot of foreign journalists like you who assume wrongly that we are ruled by the Party. How come?” asks the suited 40-something — who still sports a silky, rocker-style mane of hair. “Remember that we are listed on the NASDAQ exchange and the great majority of our shareholders are from western countries.”
Baidu, China’s most popular search engine, has a strong reputation for heavily censoring its search results when it comes to politics, human rights or even organ trafficking. Yet the company, which controls some 75 percent of searches in the world’s biggest Internet market, encourages its users to download books and MP3s for free via its dedicated platforms. Last March, forty Chinese novelists published an open letter to denounce Baidu’s attitude toward intellectual property.
But for the Chinese, Baidu has the hallmarks of an organization worth working for. Every morning at 9:30, 10,000 young geeks rush to the search engine’s headquarters in northwest Beijing, many proudly carrying their Baidu backpacks offered at the last corporate party.
Inside the Beijing HQ, Baidu’s ground floor reminds us of fashion designer Pierre Cardin’s uber-
futuristic “bubble house” in southern France: five big white round rooms dedicated to relaxation or training lessons.
Baidu’s staff look pretty happy and laid-back. Take Xiao Wong, a gifted 25-year-old senior Web programmer who has recently been awarded employee of the week. Last year, he was junior programmer at Chinese microblog Sina Weibo. Why did he quit?
“Less pressure and more money here,” he says. A Western-style cafeteria and a sophisticated gym with TV screens playing dating shows are just a handful of perks that lured him to the company.
Even if Baidu won’t let Google expand in China (only the Hong Kong version is available for Chinese), its headquarters obviously tries to look as cool as the Googleplex, Google’s corporate hub in California.
“We love them, they have a good brand and good values,” seems to be the only answer allowed among Baidu’s legions.
My journey in China’s dream factory stops here as I am not authorized to visit the censorship department, nor allowed to speak to any of the seven Baidu guys who can change search algorithms. In the main hall, a huge LCD screen displays millions of search requests in real time. I am not allowed to photograph it, as I am told “some people will think we’re watching our Internet users.”
Before we leave, we are introduced to Shuoba, the company’s latest Twitter-like platform, on top of Baidu’s popular 3-D mapping, shopping, news, audio or picture services. Surprisingly, complete ID details are required to log in.
Is it imposed by law?
“Not yet,” Kuo says. “But we think the public security bureau may need this information if they want to identify harmful chatters.”
After 10 days of traffic loss, Baidu eventually gave up the ID idea. Totalitarian ideas are not always good for business.
Is Baidu dating Facebook?
Facebook is still blocked in China, but reports are rife that the company is teaming up with Baidu to release a similar social networking website in China.
In April, several meetings with Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg and Baidu CEO Robin Li have indicated negotiations to create a Chinese Facebook, though no start date has been established.
Tapping into the Chinese market will not be easy given the country’s stringent Internet laws. Websites that do not adhere to China’s self-censorship rules, such as YouTube, are immediately blocked from the country’s ever-growing Internet users.