I stumbled upon this MIT Technology Review article: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/612601/how-google-took-on-china-and-lost/. It was quite accurate and well-written. I have put it in my reprints section. Link: https://gmachine1729.com/reprints/how-google-took-on-china-and-lost/.
I remember seeing it used back in its infancy back in 1999. Moreover, around 2000 probably, my mom showed me some newspaper article on the two Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Her words were something like, “they’re so young and already so rich and successful through this. If you’re really good at math, in the future maybe you could become like them too.” I was very little at that time.
There isn’t actually any serious math in most software engineering. Sure, PageRank has some math involved, with matrices and eigenvectors applied to “link analysis,” but overall, it’s more of an engineering, with the math just a tool. My math ability is quite strong but nothing spectacular, and my software engineering ability is probably quite mediocre though certainly good enough to be a software engineer at a top company, as I’ve already done.
Speaking of math, Sergey Brin’s father was a math professor at University of Maryland. Due to his being Jewish, he wasn’t able to officially be a graduate student in the USSR, but the system there back then was flexible enough to let him earn his PhD by passing some exams and writing a thesis with some original work in his spare time, while he worked in the Gosplan, if I remember correctly, the institution involved in economic planning. His dad was unable to get a full time job doing math despite the PhD, despite being quite a good mathematician. Eventually, their family took the difficult move to immigrate to the US, and Sergey ended up hating the USSR for “totalitarianism.”
We all know that USSR very much sided against Israel during the Cold War, so Jews there were by default persona non grata. Though you could become an exception if you really proved yourself not too Jewish in your politics or whatnot, as did Iosif Kobzon (the baritone singer of Soviet red songs considered the Russian Frank Sinatra) and some others. In any case, the USSR didn’t let Jews fuck up the country for their own benefit as the US has done, which is quite respectable. The Jews there made enormous contribution to arts and sciences with their talents, though not in a way that was so much “for the Jewish interest,” as has been the case in America.
I don’t exactly blame Sergey for his political stance. He’s a Jew, not a Russian. I bet he never really felt Russian, just like how I never felt American despite growing up in America. To align with the US over the USSR is very natural for a Jew, for reasons too obvious.
Before I developed some knowledge and credentials, I naturally saw Google very highly, almost blindly so. But over time, I saw some not all that great people becoming software engineers there, which is only natural given how many people they hire. A PhD student told me to my great surprise during my second year of college that I’m definitely smarter than the average Google developer. IQ wise that almost certainly is the case, but being a successful software engineer there is much more than about IQ.
Now I obviously don’t have any awe of Google. Almost certainly, it has the best distributed systems and AI technology. It has the most active users of any internet company in the world (its search engine, Gmail, Chrome, etc). I know and have interacted substantially with many engineers there. 90% of its money is through advertising, and because advertising is so lucrative when you are such a huge media platform, they can afford to pay its employees better, even if most of its engineers do pretty mundane work. Google has also done quite well at marketing, it’s come across as so cool and sexy, and for anybody to challenge it, that person would be mostly viewed as rather strange and uncool.
Larry and Sergey founded the company as graduate students at Stanford. They made a prototype search engine (pretty much a toy project) and I read they almost sold it for a million dollars (it was rejected because the other party found probably their thing not all that great). But after persisting with it and turning it into a company, they managed to secure enough funding and credibility that they could hire some really top notch engineers to make a top-notch technical product.
Yahoo was number one before Google (and was close to acquiring it even), but eventually, Google triumphed. One could say that Jerry Yang and David Filo could have become Larry and Sergey. Or maybe not. Larry and Sergey had a better background. US venture capitalists naturally would prefer Jews, especially a Jew from the Soviet Union who denounced it. Quality of technology is only one aspect of success. Connections and marketing tends to matter way more. Usually once you have enough of the latter, you can more or less buy the former. Larry and Sergey certainly weren’t the best at technology themselves, but they managed to hire people who were to create the real Google. In fact, people were telling me about how there are still traces of them asking some really naive technical questions on the Internet.
I remember Google’s leaving China in early 2010 all over the press. At that time, Google seemed so awesome, and the Chinese government seemed so uncool and shameful. Google appeared to have the moral high ground fighting against an evil communist dictatorship. They had like 25% market share at the time, while Baidu had around 60%, based on what I remember. Kaifu Lee was heading Google China and he was considered a big deal. (I’ve written on here about reading his Chinese book titled A Walk into the Future back in 2008 which after I actually learned math and computer science and actually spent time in academia and the software industry realized was kind of full of shit.) But after Google left, Kaifu also left. He failed to deliver Google in China. As for why Google actually left, that’s quite complex and hard to know for certain. Google will say it was due to being hacked and its principles against censorship. Baidu will say Google was losing money in China (I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case). Some will say that the Chinese government pretty much forced it out.
As written in that article from Technology Review linked above, the Chinese government has gained much more power and credibility over the past decade, though still disliked in the West. A decade ago, the Chinese government felt like China really needed Google and Silicon Valley giants for the technology and expertise and thus had to make certain concessions; now, that is no longer the case. A decade ago, people in China still really looked up to America. To challenge America’s credibility, especially that of its top institutions, like Google, like Harvard, would have given people some really funny looks in China. Now, with the benefit of China’s sizable advance in economy and technology, the trend seems to be turning. People are thinking more critically now in the face of an authority, including myself, reaching conclusions politically difficult to accept a decade ago.
From my reading and talking with people in China, as China gradually opened up in the 1980s, with more Chinese going to America and spread of American media in China, many in China lost confidence with the home country and eventually questioned the ideology and political system. The difference in level of technology and standard of living was one between heaven and earth. For instance, back then, cars were something that pretty much only organizations could afford. For the best of that generation, success meant being able to go to America for graduate school. Of course, the difference between US and China in 1980 was far smaller than in 1950, but people then did not think that way. They only saw superficially that the material standard of living in America was leagues higher. It was such that people even looked up to the four Asian tigers of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore as examples to learn from, let alone Japan. After the 89 incident, the political climate in some sense went further in that direction despite the government crackdown and more people wanted to leave the country.
Now that China is far more developed, more people are realizing the foolishness and shortsightedness of certain behaviors and decisions back then and more openly calling them out. As a consequence, people now kind of hate Deng Xiaoping, who some would regard as having come close to having seriously ruined the country. Quite prominently, China in 1980s was already test flying some Boeing 707 like passenger aircraft that was heavily invested in from 1970 on. But much due to its association with the people in power during the Cultural Revolution that Deng’s faction sidelined afterwards, the project was cancelled and the fruits of the R&D, the expertise accumulated, was pretty much wasted. If not for that, China may well already have had her own passenger aircraft in service by 2000, whereas now the target is roughly 2025, after they decided to restart R&D of passenger aircraft sometime in the 2000s. Back then, the political climate was such that integration with America and the rest of the world trumped actual, high quality development. As for those top mainland Chinese who went to America, some did well in academia and industrial R&D, while many only became more or less average engineers or scientists, all within American institutions, as a passive, second-tier minority. Many of the seconds who might have tried to go to America but weren’t able to (or a minority of top people who were patriotic enough to not buy into America even in that climate) ended up heading important projects in China or getting rich in business. As a concrete example, China has developed her own satellite navigation system, Beidou, which entered worldwide service lately according to online sources, an alternative to GPS that came 20+ years later. The Chinese in China who lead that endeavor might not be as smart as the smartest Chinese in America, but they have valuable expertise that no group of Chinese in America could ever have. Beidou is much more valuable than Google, which is honestly quite easily replicable, just at lower quality and scale. In contrast, only America, Russia, and China have the technical expertise and resources to a develop a satellite navigation system.
I’ve come to realize more so over the past year or two that over the 40 years of opening and reform, China did not get all that much from America, nothing that close to outweighed the risk of being dragged into a fire, which I managed to (one could say, narrowly) escape. In contrast, what the Soviets gave to China the 1950s industry and technology wise provided China’s modern foundation; it has been decisive to China’s success today. Moreover, the political and cultural influence from the Soviet Union on China is actually a durable one which has drastically transformed the inner soul of the Chinese people and nation for the better. Remarkable that forty years of direct exposure and interaction with a powerful and subversive America could defeat it not, with the trend now turning the other direction. Continue reading “Thoughts on Google in China”