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American Senator’s Missive Won’t Dent Chinese Search Engine’s Censorship Regime

United States Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin has penned a letter to the chairman of China’s largest Internet search engine, asking for more transparency and greater adherence to human rights.

In a message written to Robin Li, chairman and CEO of Baidu Inc., Durbin says that a rumored pending deal between U.S.-based Facebook.com and Baidu, which is China’s largest search engine, appears problematic because, he says, “I have previously expressed my view that Facebook does not have adequate safeguards in place to protect the human rights of its users.”

Durbin says that he visited the Baidu.com webpage during a recent visit to China and he “was disappointed, but not surprised, to see that Baidu heavily censors its search results.” To that end, Durbin asked Baidu to have “immediate and tangible steps to protect human rights, including freedom of expression and privacy.”

Durbin appeared to use Baidu’s U.S. ties to pressure it to alter its business operations in China. Durbin states, “As a member of the U.S. Congress, I am especially concerned about Baidu’s internet censorship because of your company’s extensive business dealings in the United States. Baidu has been listed on Nasdaq since 2005. I understand that two of Baidu’s five directors are American and that American institutions are significant investors in Baidu.”

But these mild threats probably can not make any headway within Baidu’s boardroom. Unlike companies in the U.S., wherein important stakeholders are shareholders, clients, and employees, in China the most important stakeholder for companies like Baidu is the government. Having the government as the most important stakeholder alters the way companies view their position in the Chinese marketplace. For Baidu to continue to operate within China, it must obey the rules and laws of China, and some of those laws involve Baidu self-censoring data from its search index.

As seen by Google’s departure last year from China, it’s either the government’s way, or the highway.

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