Robin Li: China's Tech Titan Always Ready To Pivot

The 45-year-old founder of Baidu, dubbed the "Google of China," says technology offers great opportunity for success – but also means failure can arrive at any moment.

Eye on the prize
Eye on the prize
Yang Yang

BEIJING — As Robin Li was delivering his 2013 keynote address, “Believe in the Power of Technology,” at Baidu’s annual meeting, the market was busy questioning the Chinese tech giant for having shifted too slow to mobile.

But one year later, the largest Chinese search engine, sometimes called the “Google of China,” appears back in its dominant perch within China’s digital sector.

Zhang Xi, an analyst at iResearch Consulting, notes that the company’s rapid expansion into the smartphone and tablet computing business has helped drive up Baidu’s share price by 69% over the past six months.

Though he is only 45, Robin Li is widely considered the captain of China’s IT industry, known for his fierce pragmatism. He has also recently taken the place of Wang Jianlin, China’s biggest real estate tycoon, as the richest man in the world’s second-largest economy.

Still, despite the apparent golden touch, Li says that ever since he first began to build Baidu, nearly 14 years ago, he has run into more obstacles than he could have ever imagined. “Once every few months or so, I get the feeling that I can’t go on anymore, that we can’t make it this time — that the company is going to die.”

With the surge to mobile, Baidu was back at another make-or-break crossroads — and again Li chose to attack the new trend head-on.

Buying spree

Over the last year, aiming to expand its presence in mobile Internet, Baidu snapped up several large platforms, one after another, including 91 Wireless, Web-Soft Limited,, a group-buying site, and PPS, a web video business. Meanwhile, aware of the importance of R&D, it established an Institute of Deep Learning (IDL) and set up an IDL laboratory in Silicon Valley, aiming to attract and promote the best Chinese tech talent in a prospective study of artificial intelligence.

Still going on the offensive doesn’t mean acting recklessly. Li’s core strategy is to purchase or invest in platforms with solid mobile web access and channel capacity so that he possesses a mixed product offering of mobile devices as well as continuing to deepen the search for technologies in areas such as apps, voice, videos and location-based services.

As of the end of 2013, 14 different models of Baidu’s mobile products were in the hands and pockets of more than 100 million users, while the company’s mobile browser users topped 400 million.

While Tencent, another Chinese web portal giant, is more focused on platforms like WeChat, a mobile text and voice messaging service, Baidu is evenly spread across different forms of products and has built four market entrances for itself in mobile search, application distribution, location-based and mobile video.

“We are in an era of globalization, and in the most unpredictable industry,” Li explains. “Technology is always changing, there’s a relentless flow of capital, and volatile consumers face so many different choices. So a young firm such as ours has to act like it is treading on ice all the time.”

Young energy

Li believes that in the field of science and technology, and in particular in the Internet business, innovation often rises directly from the youngest in the room. He himself developed Baidu Tieba, China’s largest communication platform, a decade ago at an age he considers already in his golden years.

Last July, Li promoted 29-year-old Li Mingyuan to be Baidu’s vice president. “I’m convinced that for a manager the most important thing is to think seriously about how to make use of people. We recruit a lot of excellent graduates with particularly great potential every year,” he says. “How to identify these people and give them the fastest and easiest ladder to climb is what I have spent a lot of time thinking about in the past two years.”

Indeed, managing growth is a key to a company, which over the past three years has seen its mobile search traffic increase 16-fold.

At the firm’s last annual event, Baidu World, it unveiled Light App to developers. Light App is a new distribution platform for apps that will allow end users to use apps without downloading them. While app developers enjoy access to an open platform and gain a large number of users, they are also providing a better user experience with Baidu’s strong technical support.

The importance that Li attaches to youth is also reflected in Baidu’s acquisitions. Last year the company paid $1.9 billion for 91 Assistant, a web app originally bought by 91 Wireless for only 100,000 RMB ($16,000) in 2007. The startup dream is very much alive in China.

When asked what he might change if he were to starting his career all over again, Li said, “I probably wouldn’t have chosen to go to Wall Street (He worked as a software developer for a division of Dow Jones & Company) but rather to Silicon Valley.”

He said at that time, in 1994, he didn’t understand what was really happening in Silicon Valley, where he saw hardworking engineers with relatively modest incomes. “Wall Street seemed to be so mysterious to me with all its pomp, beautiful cars and luxury food.”

Li feels lucky to have realized early enough what he could do. “To depend on my own skills and change the world,” he said. “I can do work with the aim of making as many people as possible benefit from it. That is what can never be understood on Wall Street.”

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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