Google’s CEO just lost at Go to China’s top player—but he scored with the photo-op

Google will re-enter China, it’s just a matter of time.
Google will re-enter China, it’s just a matter of time.
Image: Reuters/Elijah Nouvelage
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Yesterday (March 31) Google CEO Sundar Pichai paid a visit to the Nie Weiping school of Go in Beijing. In addition to addressing an audience of students and administrators, he played a match against Ke Jie, China’s top Go player.

“I’m extremely happy to be here at Nie Weiping,” Pichai told the school (link in Chinese). “Here, I can see the past and future of China’s Go culture.”

The recent victory of Google’s AI program AlphaGo over celebrated South Korean player Lee Sedol attracted hefty media attention in China, partly because the country is home to its own Go superstars like Ke and Gu Li. Ke has a winning record against Lee, defeating him eight times and losing to him twice.

On March 15, state media outlet Xinhua reported that Ke officially issued a challenge (link in Chinese) against AlphaGo. Scientists from the China Computer Go team have also announced plans to challenge Google’s program with their own software. Pichai addressed neither of these proposals in his public meeting.

His visit was covered by several Chinese media outlets. State-affiliated English paper China Daily made a slideshow with pictures of the event, much as it did when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg appeared publicly in China earlier this month. Both Google and Facebook have been eager to re-enter China, where their most popular websites and apps remain inaccessible.

Google’s relationship with China is more fraught than Facebook’s. The company has long had offices in Beijing and Shanghai, employing mostly engineering and ad sales teams. But its consumer-facing presence there is nearly non-existent, thanks to a government block spurred by the company’s unceremonious exit in 2010. When tech industry leaders from China and the US met at a summit in Seattle last September, the search provider was conspicuously absent.

But Google’s wish to return to China has been known for some time. Foreign and domestic media outlets have reported the company is aiming to launch an app store tailor-made for Chinese consumers. In order to do that, winning the good graces of the authorities is just as important as boosting awareness among the general public. Media-friendly photo opportunities like these can show those groups, “We’re coming, and we come in peace.”