Kaiser Kuo is leaving China after twenty years, and internet giant Baidu after six year. On May 4 he will get an award of the Asia Society Northern California, where he will settle down to work professionally on his Sinica Podcast. For Asia Society Kaiser looks back, on the internet and foreign correspondents.
As an early entrant to China’s innovation wave, Baidu serves as an online portal for consumers in China. How has Baidu leveraged this role to affect Chinese society?
At a very fundamental level Baidu exists to expand the information horizon for ordinary Chinese internet users. It’s not perfect, and can’t always be done to the extent we’d all like, but the company has to work within certain parameters. The senior management of Baidu are very serious about their mission to provide the best and most equitable way for people to find what they’re looking for, and they do all they can.
Equitability of access has always been a priority, whether it’s in creating the most naturalistic and intuitive interfaces — recently, we’ve made enormous strides in AI-based speech recognition, that can understand even quite heavily-accented regional dialects of Mandarin — or in making teaching materials used in top Beijing and Shanghai schools equally available to rural teachers and students. Baidu has also contributed immensely to the development of the public sphere in China. China-watchers focus on Weibo and, more recently, Weixin when they talk about China’s online public sphere, but let’s not forget Baidu Post Bar, which was and is still very much the place where the national conversation is happening — the place from which so many of the memes and themes emerge.
On Sinica, you’ve interviewed dozens of foreign correspondents over the years. How has the picture that foreign reportage paints of China evolved since you’ve been there? What do you think is being over-emphasized or under-emphasized?
This is an enormous topic so I’ll just limit my comments to a few things. Foreign correspondence on China has obviously improved in many ways: More reporters on the ground representing an ever-greater number of media outlets covering a wider selection of stories, more journalists with Chinese language skills and generally deeper background on China’s history, and of course with the internet, much more data to draw on. There are things to be improved, and some of it is quite fundamental and boils down to differing views on the mission of foreign correspondence. While speaking truth to power and reporting what “the man” — whether governments or big businesses — doesn’t want reported is the right approach when covering domestic stories for a domestic media market, we have to remember that in a domestic market (say, the U.S.) the readership can be assumed to have much of the context already. They live there. The whole paper is filled with stories on America, too, so those mud-raking pieces, those exposés on malfeasance by some politician or company, can be seen in proportion to all else that’s happening.
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Earlier we discussed with William Bao Bean how this other internet giant Tencent is structured. Some details here.