In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives,a new book about the inner workings of Google, sheds some light on the company’s move into China and the missteps that contributed to a China policy that did not ultimately succeed:
There were missteps from the start. When the Google founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, visited China in 2004, they needed coaching on how to behave, Mr. Levy writes. On a visit to India, they had been compared to college backpackers, riding in rickshaws. Al Gore, the former vice president, had to warn them that they were politically naïve and that the Chinese would think they were arrogant if they acted like that in China.
Many Chinese Internet users preferred the search engine Baidu out of patriotism, and the government even redirected traffic from Google to Baidu, according to Mr. Levy. Google never figured out how to manage business customs in China. It fired the head of government relations in China after she gave iPods to Chinese officials, which she charged to her Google expense account.
Google itself made it hard for its workers in China to succeed, Mr. Levy writes. It refused to grant the money to advertise in China, and the founders never visited the country once Google opened an office.
But one problem was bigger than all the rest, according to the book. Though Google prides itself on giving engineers access to its code base to invent new products, it blocked the engineers in China because it said government officials might force them to reveal private information. Experienced engineers, who felt distrusted, could not work on new products and had to spend time on tasks like testing Google searches, something that less-qualified people do at other Google offices.