Extended Interview: Google China President Kai-Fu Lee

May 30, 2008 at 12:50 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: How do you explain the difference in perceptions between Chinese and Americans over this question of, say, censorship?

KAI-FU LEE, president of Google China: I think the American core values (are) driven by life, liberty and pursuit of happiness and these are just not the same core values as the average Chinese person. The Chinese person is largely driven by sovereignty, stability, and prosperity. And if you look at how the two people and countries have formed, it’s quite understandable. Americans feel that by giving people this ability to pursue liberty, it became this amazing success, that this should be (a) value shared by everybody, because of the great success America has had.

But the Chinese people, looking back at the same past 220 years, saw nothing but misery. Its sovereignty was being questioned. It was being invaded by many countries. It had to give up its own land and see parts of its country being cut up and it was losing in every imaginable way — political, economic, and so on — so it, the way it’s being conditioned to feel is that unless China can control its own destiny and be a true sovereign country, everything else is secondary.

So that has led people to feel very patriotic, and to support national initiatives, including initiatives that from a liberty/human rights point of view might not be perfect. I think the Chinese government has been fairly straightforward in saying that in the current period, sovereignty is always a base requirement and stability is important for the country to become more prosperous, and that the democracy and human rights will come. It will take some time and that’s been their view and I think the Chinese citizens largely accept that and believe it was a wise thing.

And I know that many Americans would question, “how could you possibly not give liberty first?” But that’s really the balance between complete freedom versus stability, and the Chinese people have suffered so much with the instability in the last 200 years, the government and the people would put stability at a higher priority.

MARGARET WARNER: How wide a gulf do you see in understanding between Chinese and Americans, what Chinese people think of Americans and Americans think of the Chinese?

KAI-FU LEE: I think there are significant misunderstandings and I think a lot of the misunderstandings are deeply rooted in these two different sets of values. And I think it’s important for the two people to understand and respect that these differences exist and try to learn within that context. I think today the Americans have a serious misunderstanding of Chinese, related to the values issue, but also related to I think America has been a stable society. It’s hard to conceive the speed of change in China so people who have been here (China) 15 years ago still think that way. People who have been here 30 years ago or people who read a book about 40 years ago assume China is still that way. But that’s not true. It’s changed faster than probably any American can imagine. Because America as a society — with its political system, economic system, or the architecture within the metropolitan area for that matter — just hasn’t changed that much. But China has. So I think Americans need to keep up with the new changes in China.

The Chinese can also do a better job understanding Americans. But I think the gap is not as large because the Chinese, for the past 30 years, have always seen the American economy as a success and the American dream as the same dream that they have. And it’s kind of viewed as a role model. So you know people like Bill Gates or Larry (Page) and Sergey (Brin) at Google are the idols of the teenagers in China. And that’s what they want to achieve themselves.

So certainly the American economy — business success, entrepreneurial spirit and also entertainment Hollywood, for that matter technology — are all things that Chinese people want for themselves. So they’ve had strong self-motivation to learn about America, so I think from those angles Chinese people generally understand America reasonably well. There are root questions about values, government, political system, you know, why liberty’s so important, but those things might take some more time.

MARGARET WARNER: What similarities do you see between Americans and Chinese?

KAI-FU LEE: I think they’re actually quite alike. Both people are very entrepreneurial, willing to take risks, action-oriented, innovative and courageous. I think those aspects are quite the same. If you go into the equivalent of the Chinese Silicon Valley, you see the same, you know, venture capital start up company, the CEO, the person dreaming to build the next Google China. It’s almost … almost can’t tell the difference. So I think those aspects are quite similar.

At a crossroads

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that the gap in perception between Americans and Chinese, and therefore in a way between the two nations, is growing or shrinking?

KAI-FU LEE: I think we're at a crossroads. It could go either way and I'm very worried the gap will grow. And the reason I'm worried is that people are, have a strong tendency to stereotype and try to map something into the stereotype that they have seen or believe.

So for example, I think Americans might view a communist country as totalitarian and no freedom and miserable and by China being a communist country with more restrictive rules, it would map China in that category and say oh, that's another iron curtain country. ... China is different than the other previous iron curtain countries that have got into trouble including the old China.

Similarly, China can apply the bully stereotype to America because it remembers when the, during the Opium War and during the time when eight countries came to China and destroyed the palace in Beijing that these foreign countries were bullies. If you don't do it their way, they'll come and destroy your country and change what you do. And some Chinese are applying that to the, you know, what happened in Iraq and things like that.

People are drawing conclusions and saying, oh, the Americans want to dictate and tell us what to do. It would go to, rather extreme. So that I think is also an inaccurate portrayal, but it's easy for the Chinese who remember so painfully that the days of the Opium War that these Caucasians are bullies. So I think it's important for Americans to show that warm connectiveness and willingness to help, not to force a change.

MARGARET WARNER: Does that also apply for instance to the way the Chinese reacted to American criticism of Tibet policy? They didn't see it as coming from our values.

KAI-FU LEE: That could be, but I think, relatively speaking, the Americans did not make the strongest statements, but the countries that made the strongest statements such as France, I think, really took a substantial hit in perception in China.

MARGARET WARNER: What's at stake for both countries and also both societies in at least having a greater understanding in perceptions of one another?

KAI-FU LEE: Right, well there's no doubt that China and America will be the two largest economies for the next 30 to 50 years. And I don't think there's any point in history in time where if the two largest economies, two largest most powerful countries, don't get along and don't trust each other, the world can be a good place to live. So I think no matter what the cost is, both sides have to really be humble, be open, and learn and reach out.