Straddling 2 Worlds with Balance & Understanding
[Photo by Guenevere, Kaiser Kuo's daughter, 4&1/2]
I leave for my first visit to China in just 18 days, so this interview is particularly timely for me. For the 55 percent of my readers
based in the US, I believe it is also timely for you. It seems to me
that China is America’s most important relationship. It is also among
the most complex with apparent misconceptions on both sides of a very
That is why Kaiser Kuo,
Ogilvy China Group Director for Digital Strategy, is an ideal subject
of this 112th SM Global Report. Both charismatic and articulate, Kaiser
seems to straddle the two worlds more comfortably than anyone else.
Born in upstate New York and raised in Arizona with degrees from
both UC Berkeley and the University of Arizona, Kaiser has lived
full-time in Beijing since the early 1990s and his passion and
understanding of his adopted country comes through clearly in this
Kaiser has had what one might call a quixotic career. It includes a
good deal of professional writing including a stint as Red Herring
magazine Asia bureau chief, where he covered the tech business in China
and East Asia and as Editor-in-Chief for the now defunct ChinaNow.com multi-city online
guide. He chronicles his life in Beijing in the popular
back page column of English-language magazine The Beijinger—a
column called "Ich Bin Ein Beijinger, which is also the name of his former personal blog." A collection of those columns will soon be published as a book.
He also served previously in a couple of Internet companies, Mobile
Internet Games and Linktone, where he created successful
mobile game concepts and currently advises seven additional start ups.
But before that, Kaiser was really a rock star and I mean that
literally. Co-founder of China’s first and most successful Heavy Metal
Dynasty, Kaiser remains active in the music scene, performing and
recording with his band Chunqiu. [YouTube], which goes on tour the day after I meet up with him in China.
1. When and why did you decide to move to China? What is the single biggest change in your life because of that move?
On trips to China with my family in the 1980s, it had become clear to me that the genie was out of the bottle, and that once unleashed, there wasn’t any turning back. It was pretty obvious to anyone paying attention that the entrepreneurial talents of China’s enormous population, once unleashed, were going to bring on changes of historic proportion.
I realized that as someone with some facility in the language I’d be in an excellent position to watch how things transpired from up close, and perhaps hitch my wagon to any number of opportunities that would come up. I first intended to settle in China in 1988, right after finishing my undergrad studies at Cal Berkeley. I came to Beijing as planned, and very interesting things started happening for me–particularly in the world of rock music, in which I quickly became involved.
But the political upheaval of the Spring of ’89 cut my plans short and I wound up high-tailing it back to the States and enrolling in a graduate program in East Asian Studies at Arizona. I spent much of my time there trying to make sense of what I’d seen happen in Beijing. Once I realized that when the smoke cleared, the reform and the opening-up of the country was proceeding apace, I started coming back during summers. After my MA, I dropped out of a Ph.D. program and returned to Beijing in 1996, more or less for good. Initially the lure remained primarily music, but the nascent dynamism–social, economic, cultural–was a huge draw for me too.
If I had to identify one single biggest change in my life, it’s that by having spent so much time on both sides of the Pacific I’ve become something of a credible bridge individual: someone to whom many Americans looked to have China "explained" to them, and conversely, someone to whom Chinese looked to have certain aspects of the West demystified. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to serve in that capacity both as a rock musician and as an Internet commentator. I’ve learned, I hope, to see how each side views the other, and to empathize with the perspectives of both.
2. You have spoken and written–perhaps more than anyone else–about the misconceptions the US and Chinese social community members have about each other. You’ve described what’s happening online as "when Worlds Collide." Can you give a quick summary of what we in the West misunderstand the most?
First off, I want to make clear that there are many, many Westerners, whether academics, journalists, bloggers or pundits, who "get" China–who get it as well as anyone can, anyway. On balance I believe the media–especially journalists who live here in China and have taken the time to learn the language and cultivate excellent networks of contacts–do a laudable job reporting China. (I’m referring to Anglo-American media outlets; I don’t read other Western languages). That said, their excellent work still can’t overcome some deeply-rooted misconceptions. The sad truth about people is that they’ll come away from the most balanced of news stories with their own misconceptions reinforced. Social media community members are no exception. Social media lets us choose our own communities and we tend to move in even more like-minded circles than we might in our offline lives. So the same misconceptions persist, are often amplified and continue to color and inform the western sides of citizen-to-citizen dialogs that happen between denizens of the Anglo and Chinese online worlds. Here are a few that I see crop up a lot:
- The monolithic myth. The assumption that Chinese political authority speaks with a single voice. China is a continent-sized country, and its enormous, parallel hierarchies of Party and state are not the perfect transmission lines that run from Beijing down to every village that some people imagine. There’s a lot that goes on at the sub-provincial level that has little or nothing to do with the Party line from on high. Even within the Party there are a wide range of viewpoints on the burning questions of the day, to include issues of personal freedoms. But there’s this persistent notion that any time someone’s rights are violated in a small town thousands of kilometers from Beijing, the order must have somehow come down from Hu Jintao himself.
- The myth of continuity. When someone like Jack Cafferty on CNN calls the Chinese leadership "the same goons and thugs they were 50 years ago," he’s simply wrong. China underwent a momentous, revolutionary change 30 years ago when Deng Xiaoping inaugurated his reforms deliberately reshaping the leadership to create one of the most thoroughly technocratic regimes the world has ever seen. Jiang Zemin, his successor, continued to change the very nature of the leadership by embracing capitalists and entrepreneurs–the "most advanced forces of production"–who had had been excluded previously. And now the leadership under President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have shifted emphasis and are addressing many of the excesses of earlier freewheeling market-led development.
They’re genuinely focused on issues like sustainability, energy and the environment, and the terrible unevenness of development between the countryside and the cities and between the coastal provinces and the hinterland. Civil society and the public sphere have made major advances–the latter especially on the Internet–and while there have been lamentable setbacks at times, the general trend toward a more open society increasingly tolerant of criticism is undeniable.
- Historicism. There’s a tendency by some westerners to discount or even dismiss China’s claims that history still has a strong hold on China’s political culture. You see this crop up in discussions online between Chinese and Westerners constantly. China’s position is that long-entrenched habits of mind aren’t so easily discarded and that leaping, for instance, to a more pluralistic, open society would be dangerous and destabilizing–that it could well reverse the gains in quality of life that 30 years of gradualist reform have built, that it would be bad for the world in ways Western critics of the Communist Party’s monopoly on power haven’t thought through. China’s leadership, as well as private citizens, both play this card so often that I can see why Westerners might have gotten sick of hearing it, but among Chinese this notion that China’s historical realities circumscribe the possible rate of change is widely–indeed, nearly universally–held. Americans in particular, are relatively free (blessedly so, some would say) of historic baggage, and there’s a prevalent sentiment that change can happen overnight through collective will, a faith that things can turn on a dime.
3. And what do the Chinese most misunderstand about the West, in particular our social media community?
As to Chinese misconceptions about the West’s social media community, I think it’s unfortunate but fair to say that the number of Chinese who’ve even bothered forming impressions of it are few and far between.
The vast majority simply pay it no mind, just as the vast majority of western Internet users pay little mind to the Chinese social media community, except to convey pity for the oppressive yoke they assume it lives under.
Those Chinese who do pay attention–generally, more tech-savvy, cosmopolitan urbanites who read English and may have spent some time abroad–are uniformly impressed with the ingenuity that social media entrepreneurs continue to display, impressed with the enthusiasm with which social media apps are adopted, and with the level of thought that and reflection one sees in the West about the impact of social media on everything from marketing to politics.
But in the last year, especially after the riots in Tibet, the disruption of the Olympic Torch relay, the controversy over the Olympic Games and China’s human rights record, many have been jolted into an awareness that China’s image, even among the tech-savvy Americans they so admire, isn’t a good one. From their online encounters this year, many–even among China’s most Westernized young people–have come away with the impression that Americans and other Westerners are woefully ignorant of China. That’s not, of course, uniformly true–and ignorance of the West among Chinese is also widespread and lamentable.
4. You’ve published a list of Forbidden cliches Western journalists should avoid saying about
Beijing. I get there in 15 days. What advice do you have for me about
what I should look at when I’m there? What stories should I go after
that other Western journalists have missed?
In terms of Internet stories, I don’t think enough gets written
about the specific ways in which the emerging Chinese Internet culture
really differs from digital culture in the West, or Japan, or other
developed markets. So many writers on this sector get all breathless
with the huge numbers (and I’m still not invulnerable to that) that
they miss the human dimension to ICT stories.
Articles (and books) that address innovation here are too
polemical: either China’s doomed to copy Valley business models for
eternity, or it’s going to upend the whole world with some
super-disruptive Next Big Thing. I’d love to see more stories that
explore in a more nuanced way the balance of forces holding China back
and propelling it ahead.
Also, not enough gets written about the culture of tech
entrepreneurship here–about this fascinating ecosystem that involves
nerdy Tsinghua engineers
with big ideas, worldly returnees with their Valley experience and
their Harvard MBAs, silver-tongued lawyers and placement agents, and
all those VCs–from the parachutist who comes to China and expects to
be buried in business plans as soon as he lands, to the jaded,
world-weary China veteran who’s seen it all and knows every trick.
I don’t think anyone’s written the definitive story–not one that’s
well-reported and addressed from all the right angles–about how
China’s tech industry is going to be impacted by the meltdown of the
global financial system. That’s what’s really on my mind these days. So
many moving parts–it’s really a fascinating story.
5. One of the elephants in the room for Western journalists
is the issue of censorship. Help me to understand why Western
perceptions may be overblown? Is there no "Great Firewall of China?"
First, I don’t think Western journalists have been at all shy about
the elephant, about covering the issue of censorship. It’s actually
rare for me to speak to someone who doesn’t bring the topic up in some
capacity. And I wouldn’t by any means say that Western perceptions of
censorship are uniformly overblown. I’ve seen some absolutely spot-on
reporting by American mainstream media reporters, most notably James Fallows of The Atlantic.
For me the most persistent problem, and one that creates real
misunderstandings between the Chinese technorati and their counterparts
in the West, is this myth of a blinkered netizenry. There’s often an
assumption by Westerners that China’s Internet is much more closely
regulated and tightly fettered than it in fact is.
The Internet is censored, yes: Of that there’s no doubt. But the
parameters within which online discussion is allowed to take place is
surprisingly large, and circumscribing walls are stretched daily. Not a
day goes by when Internet forums aren’t abuzz with some instance of
official malfeasance, and criticisms are directed at anyone from the
lowliest county cadres to the loftiest politburo members.
The image that many westerners have of a benighted netizenry
cowering behind a Great Firewall is a terribly misleading caricature,
and one that causes fierce resentment among those Chinese aware of it.
another problem with the west’s understanding of censorship in China.
They tend–and I think this is sadly western-centric–to think of
Chinese Internet censorship mainly in terms of the blocking of external
The BBC, or Wikipedia, or CNN (none of which are currently blocked,
by the way). The truth is, most Chinese aren’t interested in looking at
sites hosted outside of China, and by far the more significant form of
censorship is that demanded of operating companies within China–the
blog hosting companies, the Internet forums, the news portals and so
on. That impacts on the lives of Chinese Internet users far, far more
than say Typepad or WordPress blogs outside of China being blocked.
Besides, most tech-savvy Chinese interested in accessing that content
easily find ways around the so-called Great Firewall, through VPNs,
tools like Tor, or numerous proxy servers.
6. Do you think social media will help increase understanding between the two cultures over time, or do we just keep inscrutably bumping? How and why or why not?
I think 2008 has been an unlucky year for cross-cultural misunderstandings in cyberspace: the pace and timing of events never allowed things to cool off, never allowed a respite for emotions to subside. I’m optimistic, though, because I see a growing number of people who’ve spent time on both sides of the divide stepping up and, out of purely unselfish motives, trying to bridge the chasm and help each side to better understand why the other side behaves the way it does.
Social media communities to which I belong–Twitter, and various social networks like Facebook–are heavily populated with both Chinese and Anglos. I do believe that these two dominant cultures in cyberspace–the Anglophone Internet culture and the Sinophone Internet culture–ultimately have a lot in common. Just as the Chinese-American relationship will be the most important bilateral relationship in coming decades in a purely geopolitical or geo-strategic sense, so too will the relationship between the respective netizens of the two dominant nations. With ever-improving translation tools, talking to one another is going to get easier. I’m confident that a more civil conversation will eventually emerge.
7. Just what does the top social media guy at Ogilvy do?
I’m an evangelist and what you might call an "intelligence officer."
Externally, I try to raise Ogilvy China‘s profile as the best digital shop among agencies in China through frequent public speaking, writing, and blogging. Internally, I organize workshops and seminars with leading entrepreneurs and innovators, as well as put internal training materials together to help Ogilvy people better understand the fast-transforming media landscape, to keep up with what’s new in digital technology, and how to talk about it and sell it to clients.
By "intelligence officer," I mean that anyone within the company–whether from our interactive agency, from our traditional above-the-line agency O&M, from PR, or from our activation practice, can come to me with their questions about what vendors they should work with to get advice on what channels they might be pitching to clients for a particular campaign, to bounce ideas off me for digital components of campaigns they’re working on, or just to bone up on some aspect of digital they don’t quite get. Another part of my job involves identifying tech companies in China that we (either Ogilvy or our parent company, WPP) might want to make strategic investments in. I love that part of it because it puts me on the ground with a lot of start-ups and I can get a sense for where things are moving.
8. Can you give me a brief picture of how Chinese business is using social media?
Chinese companies–and multinationals operating in China–frankly haven’t been as quick to embrace social media as their counterparts in the West have been, but that’s changing. Companies and their brands are aware, at least, that they need to be monitoring social media. It’s not the blogs that they worry about so much: It’s really the BBS.
You’ve probably read stats on how widespread BBS use is in China. More than a third of Internet users post to BBSs regularly. 80% of China’s 1.5 million Internet sites have BBSs attached to them. Tens of millions of posts go up a day. It’s on BBSs where most of the big controversies, the scandals, the crises all break these days. It’s where people are really talking about your brand. A raft of companies has popped up to try to help manage a brand’s digital reputation. Most focus, correctly, on BBS. Some of them are quite reputable while others behave with almost comically grotesque lack of ethics, using the most egregious astroturfing techniques you’ve ever seen.
In social networks, brands are taking cautious first steps to enlist brand ambassadors and corral fans but the social networks themselves have been cautious about user experience and haven’t opened the floodgates to targeted advertising just yet. The Internet video sites, which must also count as social media, are making a big push to engage Chinese businesses. Seed ads, either professionally produced or user-generated, are commonplace now on sites like Youku , Tudou, and Ku6 .
9. Do you see some disruptive technologies emerging in China that will impact US business and/or social media?
I’ve seen some very nifty things developed in China that may very will impact the global social media landscape. Just last Friday I was at lunch with a new crew of entrepreneurs who are building a hybrid SNS/virtual world. And that’s the second one I’ve seen in China. Doubtless, similar efforts are already underway in Silicon Valley or Tel Aviv or in Scandinavia. I have a couple of friends who’ve developed a terrific Firefox plug-in–a smart, learning discovery engine with a strong social component–which I believe will radically change the way people use their browsers.
At present, these sorts of things are the exceptions. For the most part, Chinese Internet companies still copy business models they’ve seen in the West so that there’s a Chinese counterpart for just about every well-known social media platform or app that’s come out of North America or Europe. But I believe that’s changing. Valley VCs were apt to fund companies whose business models were easily intelligible to them–to pick the low-hanging fruit. But that fruit’s largely been picked clean and as venture starts reaching into higher branches, entrepreneurs will start bearing fruit in those higher branches.
A guy I know at Intellectual Ventures once pointed out that over time, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea all moved from being net IP importers to enjoying a relative balance of payments in royalties and licensing fees and did so at increasingly steep trajectories. China’s been no slouch about learning from what its neighbors have done to stimulate innovation. It has some real advantages in innovating–a huge domestic market, like the U.S. had after the Second World War, massive manufacturing capabilities and leadership committed to creating a more innovation-friendly business environment. China’s business leaders, educators and increasingly its political leadership are on the same page when it comes to their understanding of the obstacles: China’s traditional pedagogy, the lack of credit available to private sector start-ups and so forth.
10. There are more than 100 million "regular" bloggers in China according to Isaac Mao. Yet very few, I am told use social media for business purposes. Is business use increasing? What are some of the main subjects of conversation in the Chinese blogosphere?
Isaac is right that there aren’t a lot of businesses using social media, unless you count Instant Messaging (IM) as a social medium. IM is a commonplace business tool not only within an enterprise but for communicating between companies. It’s quite routine, for instance, for a sales staffer to have lunch with a potential client, exchange IM account names or numbers and IM each other when they get back to their respective offices to keep in touch.
As I mentioned, BBS, arguably a very primitive form of social media, still trumps blogging in China. Part of that seems to be because of the relative anonymity of BBS compared to blogs whose hosting companies, in theory at least, are supposed to insist on real-name registration.
There may be, as Isaac suggests, a huge number of "regular" bloggers in China but we have a strange phenomena here whereby there aren’t really any "celebrity bloggers" like we have in the U.S. — the Glenn Reynolds, the Drudges, the Perez Hiltons — but there are rather a lot of "blogging celebrities" — actors and actresses, well-known writers, and traditional media personalities who write some of China’s most popular blogs.
My purely unscientific, anecdotal surmise as to the main subjects of conversation in China: Basically, your pedestrian comings-and-goings blogs: "my kitty got sick and I had to take her to the vet," or "I’m so depressed that my girlfriend dumped me," entertainment (boy bands, Korean soaps, Jay Chou and other pop stars or the latest Hollywood blockbusters. Cars are a big topic–it’s like the 50s in the U.S., where young people are car-crazy and of course there’s technology, online games and that sort of thing. There is a surprising number devoted to literature. Political blogs are rare.
11. What are the most popular social media tools in China?
In terms of sheer user numbers, Shenzhen-based Tencent, which operates China’s most popular IM, QQ [Google Translate] has a suite of social media tools that have to rank up there among the most popular.
Tencent cleverly weaves together a complementary offering including their ubiquitous IM (340 million active accounts, when there are only 253 million Internet users in China!), a traditional portal , a LiveJournal-like mini-blog-cum-social network called QZone and casual and MMO game offerings and keeps it sticky and low-churning by unifying it with a virtual currency.
Social networks are all the rage right now and you basically have three who’ve carved out strong niches themselves in three separate demographics: Xiaonei.com is the dominant campus-based SNS, relative newcomer Kaixin001.com has come to dominate among first-tier city white collar workers and professionals, and 51.com rules the hinterland and the secondary/tertiary cities of the coastal provinces.
Most bloggers in China blog either through a service provided by one of the leading Internet portals, Sina.com or Sohu.com, or through one of the major blog service providers like Blogcn.com, Bokee.com, or Blogbus.com. A great many also use mini-blog services like MSN Spaces or Tencent’s above-mentioned QZone.
Social bookmarking tools haven’t really caught on with the mainstream Internet user in China yet, so the Digg or Del.icio.us clones haven’t really taken off. But consumer rating sites–one particularly popular one is Douban.com [Link is Google translated], where books, movies, TV shows and music are rated and discussed–are quite popular.
Video sites are extraordinarily popular. In a study last year by MTV and Microsoft, 33% of Chinese answered "always" or "most of the time" when asked how frequently they visit Internet video sites when they go online. That was more than in any other geography surveyed. The dominant Internet video sites in China, Youku.com [Goog Transl.] and Tudou.com [Trans] actually have quite large ratios of professionally-produced content, and so calling them "video sharing sites" isn’t quite accurate.
Youku, a company I consult, is, for instance, ranked between the 5th and 7th most popular site on the Chinese Internet in terms of time spent on site. In China, more searches are done per day on Youku than on Google.
12. Can you give me any statistics regarding the number of Chinese bloggers who understand and read English blogs?
I don’t believe I’ve ever seen any such statistics, but I reckon the numbers to be very, very low. Some level of English reading ability is common, as it’s compulsory in schools, but the outward-facing fringe of the blogging community is still small.