To put it simply, Baidu is the Google of China.

That comparison comes direct from Baidu’s own former group president. Admittedly, Lu Qi is a little biased here. But he’s also not wrong: Google and Baidu have a lot of similarities.

Like Google, Baidu made its name as a search engine. And like Google, it’s now trying to establish itself as a leader in artificial intelligence.

The user interface of many Baidu’s products is very similar to that of Google. (Picture: Shutterstock)

China has 772 million web users, Baidu holds more than 70% market share in China's search engine market. It’s the second largest search engine in the world behind Google.

China Internet Report 2018

Let’s take a step back and get to the beginning of the story. Baidu was founded in the year 2000 by Chinese entrepreneurs Robin Li and Eric Xu, both of whom graduated from colleges in the US.

Before founding Baidu, Li was himself an accomplished technologist who created a patented site-scoring algorithm for Dow Jones. When he returned to Beijing in 1999, he saw an opportunity in starting a search engine company for Chinese users. And with the help of Xu, who is a biochemist, Baidu was born.

The name -- Baidu -- has a poetic origin. Meaning “hundred of times,” the name came from a famous Chinese verse which said, “Having searched hundreds of times in the crowd, suddenly turning back, he is there in the dimmest candlelight."

From the beginning, the Beijing-based company was seen as a challenger to Google, which had just launched its Chinese search engine. But Google, which promised unrestricted and uncensored searches in line with its old motto “Don’t be evil”, was targeted constantly by the Chinese government. Google’s site was often blocked, and users found access slowed.

In contrast, Baidu complied with the wishes of the government and banned searches for words and phrases deemed sensitive by authorities.

The UC Berkeley-backed China Digital Times said Baidu has “a long history of being the most active and restrictive online censor in the search arena”. In 2009, the publication acquired a number of leaked documents from a Baidu employee, laying out a long list of blocked websites and censored topics in Baidu’s search engine. The documents said politically sensitive words such as “Tiananmen”, “Cultural Revolution” and “Voice of America” are heavily monitored, if not censored outright.

For better or worse, by 2006 Baidu had already become so widely used that it overtook Google as China’s biggest search engine.

In 2007, Baidu became the first Chinese company to be included in the NASDAQ-100 index. Being the first to reach such a milestone put Baidu on the map as China’s first tech giant. With Alibaba and Tencent later rising to become the multinational conglomerates they are today, the three companies were collectively known as China’s “BAT” to western investors.

And Baidu got a bigger boost in 2010, after Google had enough of the Chinese government’s restrictions and decided to pull out of the country. Baidu’s main competitor was out of the picture.

Like many tech elites in China, Robin Li is also a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference -- a political advisory body. (Picture: AFP)

Throughout the years, Baidu mirrored many aspects of Google’s business model. Just like how Google has a whole host of internet services like Google Translate, Google Maps and Google Ads, Baidu has similar products.

While people in the West may feel that censorship is Baidu’s biggest issue, in China people are less concerned by that. Instead, critics have called other practices into question.

For instance, Baidu Ads found itself in hot water in 2016 after a 21-year old Chinese college student died after undergoing an experimental cancer treatment. He found the treatment as a recommended link on Baidu.

Medical advertising accounted for 30% of Baidu’s ad revenue, and a big part of that comes from a hospital network notorious for selling shady medical treatments. It caused an uproar in China, and regulators told Baidu they couldn’t sell paid healthcare results to the highest bidder.

In early 2010s, as consumers increasingly access online on their phones and tablets, Baidu was slow to pivot its services from personal computers to smartphones. Meanwhile, both Alibaba and Tencent were quick to move to mobile. As a result, China’s first internet giant found itself behind its two rivals.

For instance, Alibaba quickly brought ecommerce to mobile, and built Alipay as a mobile payment platform. Tencent, on the other hand, made its messaging app WeChat an all-in-one super app, bundled with WeChat Pay. The two companies now hold China’s two biggest mobile payment platforms.

Having fallen significantly behind during the mobile revolution, Baidu is now looking for an edge to get ahead of the pack. And it’s betting heavily on AI.

Just as Google is developing autonomous driving technologies, Baidu unveiled its own self-driving platform Apollo in 2017. Baidu says a software engineer now can convert a Lincoln MKZ into a self-driving vehicle in about 48 hours. Baidu has also made Apollo an open platform for programmers from all backgrounds to utilize.

In July 2018, Baidu announced that it is mass producing 100 self-driving electric vehicles using the company’s open source autonomous driving software, Apollo. (Picture: King Long)

Although Baidu’s AI ventures started relatively late compared with leading Western companies, China’s regulatory environment is helping the company to quickly close the gap on competitors. And it has started to gain some prestige: It was included in an AI ethics group led by top U.S. tech firms in October 2018.

But Baidu’s international clout continues to be affected by charges of censorship inside China.

In the US, activists sued Baidu for effectively aiding the Chinese government in cracking down free speech by way of self-censorship. But a U.S. judge ruled that the Chinese search engine has the right to block pro-democracy works from its search results.

Ironically, Google has recently revealed its plan to return to China with a censored search engine.

Some say Google’s return might turn out badly for Baidu. But CEO Robin Li isn’t afraid, saying he’s confident Baidu can defeat Google again.