SAN FRANCISCO--Baidu CEO Robin Li was also frustrated by Chinese censorship when he returned to his native country to found a search engine, but he said he didn't have the same options that Google had earlier this year.
Li, speaking at the Web 2.0 Summit here in what host John Battelle said was his first U.S. appearance before an industry conference, fielded several friendly questions but was also asked about earlier this year in favor of a Chinese-language search operation based in Hong Kong, where censorship laws are different. A similar thought crossed his mind back in the earlier part of the decade before it was dismissed, he said.
"I'm Chinese, I don't have any other choices," Li said. "If I were to move to Hong Kong, they would call me some type of anti-government person. If a U.S. company moves to Hong Kong, (the government) can still call them strategic partners."
The decision to stay has clearly paid off for Li, the subject of a lengthy profile in Business Week in the days leading up to the Web 2.0 Summit. Baidu is a runaway success in China, especially now that Google's operation is hobbled by having to pass through the Great Firewall of China.
Li claimed that Baidu was used by 99 percent of all Chinese Internet users, who currently number around 420 million. Baidu processes more search queries in China than Google does in the U.S., he said, and there's still a ton of room for growth in its home country.
However, Li side-stepped questions about working with government censors, which Baidu is said to do more adroitly than even some of its competitors based in China. He did acknowledge that the Chinese government is working on its own search engine, a situation that would be "unthinkable" in the U.S., Battelle said, expressing disbelief (and rightly so) that the U.S. government would consider competing against private companies in Internet search.
In what might have been the understatement of the decade, Li said "China has a very strong government and the government can do a lot of things." He shrugged off any suggestions that Baidu would lose any ground in China as a result of the government's entrance into the market.