Google in China: The big disconnect

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For many young people in China, Kai-Fu Lee is a celebrity.

Not quite on the level of a movie star like Edison Chen or the singers in the boy band F4, but for a 44-year-old computer scientist who invariably appears in a somber dark suit, he can really draw a crowd.

When Lee, the new head of operations for Google in China, gave a lecture at one Chinese university about how young Chinese should compete with the rest of the world, scalpers sold tickets for $60 apiece. At another, an audience of 8,000 showed up; students sprawled out on the ground, fixed on every word.

It is not hard to see why Lee has become a cult figure for China's high-tech youth. He grew up in Taiwan, went to Columbia University and Carnegie Mellon University, and is fluent in both English and Mandarin. Before joining Google last year, he worked for Apple Computer in California and then for Microsoft in China; he set up Microsoft Research Asia, the company's research and development lab in Beijing.

In person, Lee exudes the cheery optimism of a life coach; last year, he published "Be Your Personal Best," a fast-selling self-help book that urged Chinese students to adopt the risk-taking spirit of American capitalism. When he started the Microsoft lab seven years ago, he hired dozens of China's top graduates; he will now be doing the same thing for Google. "The students of China are remarkable," he told me when I met him in Beijing in February. "There is a huge desire to learn."

Lee can sound almost evangelical when he talks about the liberating power of technology. The Internet, he says, will level the playing field for China's enormous rural underclass; once the country's small villages are connected, he says, students thousands of miles from Shanghai or Beijing will be able to access online course materials from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Harvard University and fully educate themselves.

Lee has been with Google since only last summer, but he wears the company's earnest, utopian ethos on his sleeve: when he was hired away from Microsoft, he published a gushingly emotional open letter on his personal Web site, praising Google's mission to bring information to the masses. He concluded with an exuberant equation that translates as "youth + freedom + equality + bottom-up innovation + user focus + don't be evil = The Miracle of Google."

When I visited with Lee, that miracle was being conducted out of a collection of bland offices in downtown Beijing that looked as if they had been hastily rented and occupied. The small rooms were full of eager young Chinese men in hip sweatshirts clustered around enormous flat-panel monitors, debugging code for new Google projects.

"The ideals that we uphold here are really just so important and noble," Lee told me. "How to build stuff that users like, and figure out how to make money later. And 'Don't Do Evil'"--he was referring to Google's bold motto, "Don't be evil"--"all of those things. I think I've always been an idealist in my heart."

Yet Google's conduct in China has in recent months seemed considerably less than idealistic. In January, a few months after Lee opened the Beijing office, the company announced that it would be introducing a new version of its search engine for the Chinese market.

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