Even though he is best known as the former head of Google China, long before his stint at the search firm Lee Kai-fu actually worked at Apple, where he headed several R&D projects for Mac computers in the 1990s. He left Apple and went to SGI, the 3D graphics firm, that would later be bought by Computer Associates. Looking for a job, Lee then received an offer from Microsoft’s research division that required him to move back to China.
But the story wasn’t that straightforward. When he got home his wife told him “Steve from Apple wants you to call”. Which Steve? Not Jobs surely? After all Lee had worked at Apple before Jobs returned to run the company (or as Lee likes to put it: “I was at Apple between Jobs”) and the two had never met. But when Lee called the number, it was indeed Jobs on the line, saying that he wanted him to come back to Apple. But as Lee told Tech Crunch, a blog, he felt compelled to take Microsoft’s offer because his father – a Taiwanese official – had asked his son to return to China one day.
Chance or not, his timing was perfect. China’s internet culture was just starting to take off and Lee was soon moving on from Microsoft to become the founding president of Google’s operations in China. With such a star-studded roster of former employers behind him, Lee switched direction again in 2009, resigning from the search giant and founding Innovation Works, an incubator for Chinese tech start-ups.
Today, Lee remains one of the most prominent figures on China’s internet scene. That’s not only because he is helping to fund new tech start-ups. Lee’s embrace of social media – especially the world of weibo (or microblogs) – has transformed him from business executive to one of the most powerful pundits online.
In fact, Lee became one of China’s first microbloggers when the internet portal Sina invited him to sign up for one of the first 20 accounts on its new Twitter-like service, Sina Weibo, in 2009. Like its Western counterpart (which is blocked in China), Sina Weibo allows 140 character messages but due to China’s ideogram-based writing system – where a single character is often a word – authors can pack a lot more meaning into a message than Twitter allows. The microblog service quickly took off. Last year it surpassed 500 million registered users, 46 million of which were active on a daily basis.
Lee, too, has remained active online accumulating almost 45 million followers, far more than any other business leader and matched only by half a dozen celebrities in the entertainment industry.
To help put that in perspective, Lee is ‘followed’ by the equivalent of the population of Spain. His readers are usually 20-something, mostly male, and often tech-savvy students.
“Thirty million followers is like a provincial radio or TV station,” says Bill Bishop, an independent technology consultant. “I don’t know how many other people have that many.”
One reason for Lee’s popularity is that he tweets frequently. On a typical day, he will post about 10 times, touching on topics from current events to career advice for young people.
Last year he was in the spotlight for several weeks when he launched a war of words against short sellers in the United States that were attacking publicly listed Chinese tech firms. But that same year Lee also initiated a petition on his microblog to boycott a reality TV show for humiliating a jobseeker who fainted on stage. Over 400,000 people signed up and the producers of the show later apologised to the contestant.
Nevertheless Lee has won over most of his fans for his occasional criticism of the Chinese government, including joining a number of other weibo celebrities to post support for staff at newspaper Southern Weekend during a standoff with government censors early this year. Lee later admitted that authorities had “invited him to tea” – internet slang for being called in to explain himself by state security officers.
But that hasn’t stopped Lee from posting further criticism. A month later, he spoke out against the People’s Daily search engine Jike and its director, former ping pong champion Deng Yaping, saying that they’d spent huge amounts of taxpayer money on a site that has miniscule market share (see WiC183). Again, the onslaught was not without consequences: Lee’s weibo account was suspended for three days.
Lee – who has written a book called Weibo Changes Everything – refuses to be silenced for long. “While the controls are tighter, one must realise that social media is infinitely more open than other media in China… As a result, Sina Weibo has become the media of choice for people to find or share information, and to voice or hear opinion,” he wrote in a later post.
Although the Chinese authorities continue to exert broad control over the country’s traditional media, Lee is right to say that the rapid dissemination of news and views via weibo presents much more of challenge.
Take the high-speed train crash in Wenzhou in 2011. Outrage at the accident and especially the government’s slow response soon spread widely on Sina Weibo, overwhelming the efforts of the censors to shut down the story. The authorities tried to keep the story off the front pages the following day, but weibo quickly spread the news, along with lots of photographs. When a railway ministry spokesman failed to provide convincing answers, he was pounded online. Anger rose at the conduct of his employer, formerly a powerful ministry, which has since been reorganised (see WiC133).
Similarly, when record-breaking smogs blanketed northeastern China in January, they sparked a massive weibo debate – particularly when celebrities including property tycoon Pan Shiyi began posting air quality data published by the US embassy in Beijing (information that the authorities had previously tried to block from reaching the public). Eventually the city government changed tack, agreeing to start publishing data from its own monitoring of PM 2.5, fine particles considered to be among the most hazardous pollutants (see issue 134).
These incidents all point to a new reality: weibo as an undeniable social force and one that can’t be completely controlled or ignored. Its popularity is also fundamentally changing communication between the people and their government, especially in freeing up access to news that would previously have been stifled, as well as allowing the public to demand more accountability from officials, especially at lower levels of government.
Of course, the authorities aren’t prepared to give weibo users completely free rein. In seeking to control more of what is said on weibo, they have demanded that Sina and Tencent, which also operates a microblogging service, adopt real-name registration for everyone wanting to post. That’s killed anonymity and much of the former protection for those who revealed more sensitive information.
On the flipside some local governments have taken to the service with aplomb, using it to try to communicate with their local citizens.
Weibo usage is now too embedded to be curtailed. For every effort to develop new rules and regulations, there are hundreds of thousands of weibo fans working on ways to circumvent them. And the drive to control the weibo culture has done little to dent the medium’s vibrancy and growth. Even for the hardliners in government, the realisation must have dawned that the weibo world is too big and too popular to shut down completely.
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