Baidu, Vietnam, and the Bordered World of Chinese Internet Companies

CGCS Internet Policy Observatory affiliate Sarah Logan examines the international expansion of China’s search engine Baidu into Vietnam to explore if the relationship between the Chinese state and Chinese internet companies affect those companies’ international expansion. This project adds to studies of the ‘state’ in cyberspace, in this case by studying Chinese internet companies beyond Chinese borders—adding a geopolitical element to existing studies. This project is part of CGCS’s Internet Policy Observatory (IPO).

Remember when cyberspace was borderless? A never-ending, utopian plane which heralded the dawn of a new age of global humanity?  These dreams have long been trampled underfoot – most recently by the Snowden revelations, but also the understanding we now have of the way states can manipulate the internet for domestic political goals. Research in the field now focuses on the implications of information technologies—symbolic, economic, and political. This means looking at the way states interact with the web, especially in the pursuit of political goals. Today, scholarly and policy attention focuses on the web as a bordered, sovereign space rather than the ‘placeless’ cyber domain which occupied the minds of early internet researchers.

For several years, China has featured prominently in such research, and the Great Firewall marked the pinnacle of state ambition to control online information access. Such control is exercised under the rubric of ‘internet sovereignty’, so that  ‘within Chinese territory the internet is under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty.’  As is well described in the literature, especially in work by Jiang and MacKinnon, this means that the Chinese state manages citizens online by restricting access to certain sites, and controls the flow of online information within its borders in more subtle ways, using the internet as a tool of surveillance, censorship and information shaping. Chinese technology companies are inextricably linked with these practices of internet sovereignty via processes known as ‘networked authoritarianism’. Chinese networked authoritarianism cannot work without the active cooperation of private companies via a system of stringently enforced and wide-ranging intermediary liability.

Given this relationship, what happens when Chinese information companies go abroad? Chinese internet and technology companies are now expanding beyond Chinese borders. Private companies such as Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent are worth millions, and all three are listed on international stock exchanges: they are private actors rather than direct agents of the Chinese state when they operate outside China. However, despite their private status, their close relationship with the Chinese state is widely known beyond China, as the country makes no secret of the importance it places on information control. What are the symbolic, economic, and political implications of information technologies in this context? More importantly, what are their geopolitical implications? The geopolitics of tech is an emerging issue, hinted at by a body of work on the geopolitics of internet governance by scholars such as Mueller, Wagner, McCarthy and Carr. However, there is limited research on the geopolitical implications of internet technology companies rather than internet infrastructure itself.

A recent research project funded by the IPO at Annenberg’s CGCS investigates these implications. It asks: does the relationship between the Chinese state and Chinese internet companies affect those companies’ international expansion? If so, how?  In asking these questions, the project adds to studies of the ‘state’ in cyberspace, but in this case by studying Chinese internet companies beyond Chinese borders—adding a geopolitical element to existing studies.  The study examines the international expansion of one of China’s biggest internet technology companies, Baidu, into Vietnam as a case study.

Baidu is the second largest search engine in the world, and the largest in China, although its business extends far beyond search and into such varied realms as software security, web portals, browsers and media players. Like all other Chinese internet companies, it cooperates closely with the Chinese state—for example, in 2009, Baidu received a ‘Chinese Internet Self-Discipline Award’ for fostering ‘healthy, harmonious internet development.’  Like other Chinese internet giants Tencent and Alibaba, Baidu recently announced its international expansion plans. Baidu now has a presence in over 10 countries outside China, including Egypt, Brazil, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia.

South-East Asia is one of the most important regions for Baidu’s expansion: in 2011 it opened a language lab in Singapore to focus on regional languages including Thai, Vietnamese and Indonesian.  This research project focuses on Baidu’s expansion into Vietnam, largely because it appears to have not gone according to plan. Like China, Vietnam is a one-party state with a strong interest in information control. One would expect Baidu to be a ‘censor of choice’ in Vietnam, and as China’s largest search engine it should have the financial means and the experience to dominate such a market. However, Baidu failed in Vietnam. The company is no longer investing in Vietnamese language search, and no longer operates any flagship products in Vietnam. One Baidu official suggested to the BBC in 2012 that this was because of unanticipated anti-Chinese sentiment in Vietnam at the time. Indeed, in 2012, when Baidu launched its major products on the Vietnamese market, China and Vietnam were involved in a longstanding dispute concerning the geopolitics of the South China Sea (SCS) which led to a severe deterioration in relations between the two countries. Baidu launched two flagship products—its social network, Baidu Tieba, and its music player, TT Player, at a difficult time in China-Vietnam relations. Baidu’s entry and withdrawal into Vietnam is firmly situated within these geopolitical tensions, making its adventure into Vietnam a useful case study of the impact – if any—of such geopolitics on Chinese information technology companies.

In an effort to understand Baidu’s failure in Vietnam, the study’s author searched the online archives of 11 Vietnamese news outlets between January and December 2012 for the keyword “Baidu.’ These outlets ranged from conservative mouthpieces for state agencies to those based on a more profit-driven model, in an effort to cover reporting on Baidu across a representative range of media outlets. Of 23 reports which contained the word ‘Baidu’ this search revealed 18 reports which had Baidu as their topic of discussion across the 11 outlets. Of the 18 stories which had Baidu as their primary topic, 15 were negative. Of the negative stories, all appeared within two months of each other, between late June and late August 2012, just as Baidu’s social network was launched in Vietnam, and following China’s initiation of deepwater oil drilling in contested areas of the South China sea in 2012. This noticeable spike in reporting is almost wholly negative.

The reports were all very similar and clustered around three themes:

1) Baidu Tieba’s Failure to Register Domain Names

These articles allege that Baidu had failed to register its social network using a .com.vn domain name, instead registering it simply as a .com.  Reports alleged that Baidu had bypassed Vietnamese regulations which required all social network content to be directed through Vietnamese servers, instead falsely alleging that the company routed all Vietnamese traffic through servers based in China. In fact, these regulations did not apply at this time, and—apparently in response to criticism—Baidu changed its domain registration so that Baidu Tieba’s content would, in fact route via a .com.vn domain.

2) Baidu Tieba and the South China Sea.

Reporting on this theme alleges that Baidu’s social network does not allow Vietnamese users to use Vietnamese terms to refer to contested territory in the South China Sea, linking Baidu to contentious Chinese geopolitics.  The author was unable to replicate this, and reporters were unable to share screenshots of such activity which they referred to in articles: although they could show that Baidu did not allow discussion of the terms using Vietnamese names, they could not show that Baidu did facilitate discussion using Chinese names. Instead, what is more likely is that Baidu simply opted to forbid discussion of all ‘sensitive’ content on its pages.

3) TTplayer, Baidu and Spyware

The third theme among articles falsely alleges that Baidu’s music player and another product, a web portal called hao123, installed  malware on users’ computers which facilitated broadly defined ‘hacking’ activities. Security experts quoted in the articles frame the issue as one of ‘remote control,’ alleging that those who control the trojan (presumably Baidu) could influence the operation of users’ computers in Vietnam in a nefarious manner reminiscent of the lack of control Chinese users have over their own computers. This is certainly untrue, and interviews with those quoted in these articles suggested that they knew it to be untrue but saw this misinformation as a way to keep Baidu out. Wary of the Vietnamese government’s penchant for information control, they wanted to help thwart the entry of a Chinese company skilled in the practices of internet control into Vietnam.

These three themes clearly associate Baidu with practices of Chinese ‘internet sovereignty.’ The first, alleging Baidu failed to register its domains correctly, links Baidu to Chinese territory in a particular way by suggesting that the way Chinese internet companies handle information is bounded territorially by the Chinese state: in this telling, internet-borne data travels from Vietnam to within the borders of the Chinese state, interpreting the concept of ‘internet sovereignty’ literally. The second theme, meanwhile, extends Chinese ‘internet sovereignty’ outside its borders by shaping online discussion just as it might domestically, but this time outside China, on non-Chinese users, and in support of China’s extraterritorial geopolitical goals. The third theme, on TTPlayer and ‘malware’, frames Baidu in Vietnam as an extension of domestic Chinese interests.

These stories fostered an association between Baidu and controversial Chinese geopolitics in the South China Sea, and played on populist anger among the Vietnamese against Chinese moves in the South China Sea, demonstrated by boycotts of Chinese goods and anti-Chinese riots at the same time the stories were published. In fact, technology companies like Baidu are arguably particularly vulnerable to such anti-Chinese boycotts. Unlike producers of agricultural goods, for example, they have no price advantage.

Baidu has also been subject to anti-Chinese sentiment elsewhere. In Japan, where relations between the two countries have long been strained, recent allegations suggest that the company’s products include forms of spyware. Other Chinese technology companies are not immune: WeChat experienced a significant consumer backlash in Vietnam after it was discovered that users who accessed maps when they were in China were shown a map of the SCS in China’s favor.  Similarly, the Indian air force reportedly temporarily banned its pilots and their families from using phones by the Chinese phone company Xiaomei due to spying concerns. The company denies these allegations and is planning to move its servers for non-Chinese users outside China to alleviate these concerns.  Both of these examples are associated with significant geopolitical tensions between China and Japan and between China and India respectively.

The geopolitics of tech is an emerging and fruitful research agenda, and this project finds that Baidu’s international expansion into Vietnam is affected by the company’s relationship with the Chinese state. For this Chinese company at least, the platform is perceived to embody the state, even outside China’s physical borders: the company itself is ‘bordered.’  Baidu’s failure in Vietnam shows that internet platforms so closely identified with states are seen by users to have geopolitical implications.  It also shows that in this instance, the Chinese state is defined by its information practices as much as its territory. Here, Baidu’s association with Chinese internet sovereignty means the company itself and its approach to information are bounded, even in the borderless plains of cyberspace beyond the Great Firewall.

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