Google shut down its search engine in China in 2010 amid concerns over government censorship, cyberattacks, and stiff competition from domestic rival Baidu. Now, it’s allegedly mulling a return—and Baidu’s CEO has fighting words for the Silicon Valley giant.
In a post published yesterday (Aug. 7) on WeChat, China’s main chat app, Baidu’s Robin Li addressed the possibility of Google’s return to China by reiterating a common trope—that China’s tech giants are more advanced and influential than ever before, and are capable of going head to head with international counterparts.
In the post, which was shared privately to Li’s contacts on WeChat but also circulated in Chinese media (link in Chinese), Li talked up Baidu’s efforts in artificial intelligence. The Chinese search giant is developing open-sourced self-driving-car technology and recently ran a road test using a 5G network. The letter in full translates as follows:
Today the People’s Daily on overseas social media said that it welcomes Google’s return, but it first must respect China’s laws. Friends have asked me what I think of this issue. I’d like to say, China’s tech companies nowadays have ample ability and confidence. Amid competition with international companies, both can reap the benefits of globalization. If Google decides to return to China, we have enough confidence to take them on once more, and win once more.
The Baidu of today is a world leader in artificial intelligence and has massive influence. Our global ecosystem of partners exceeds 300 companies. Google is also one of our partners in our international markets. Baidu is fully prepared for the industry’s next phase of artificial intelligence, and will push the boundaries of technology with the world and share the results of innovation.
As for the Chinese market—these few years, our industry environment and scale has endured earth-shattering changes. China’s tech companies have led the world in discovering new problems and servicing new demands. The world is now copying from China. Every company that hopes to enter the Chinese market now must consider and face this.
Over the past few years, Baidu has often been perceived as the beneficiary of Google’s exit from China. We can’t confirm something that never happened. In fact, Google preceded Baidu when it launched an independent search service in China in 2000. It ramped up these efforts in 2005. Baidu was a latecomer, but with technology and innovation it surpassed Google. By 2010, Google left China as its market share continued to decline. Baidu’s market share exceeded 70%. If Google wants to come back, we can take them on with all our might and win again.
Baidu confirmed the post’s authenticity to Quartz but declined to comment further.
By stating that Google preceded Baidu in China, Li is likely referring to Google’s launch of its Chinese-language search engine on Google.com in 2000 (paywall). Lags in connectivity, likely caused by government intervention, prompted Google in 2006 to launch Google.cn, a search engine with servers and staff located in China that complied with the country’s censorship regime. Baidu’s standalone search engine site went live in 2001.
There are many unknowns surrounding Google’s planned re-entry into China, such as whether or not authorities will grant it the necessary licences to launch a search business.
Putting politics aside, with the right partners (possibly Tencent), Google could potentially have a noticeable impact on China’s search engine market if it returns to China. That’s in part due to public disappointment toward Baidu. Top comments on social network Weibo, where Li’s post was circulated as screenshots, compare the Chinese search engine unfavorably to Google (link in Chinese, registration required). “Forget it. Can’t you tell from Chinese people’s attitudes that their hearts have turned cold on Baidu?” reads one comment with over 4,000 likes.