After Google’s Move, a Shift in Search Terms
By JONATHAN STRAY and LILY LEE
Published: March 28, 2010
HONG KONG — Chinese searches for politically delicate terms peaked the day Google stopped filtering its search results, but the government pressed on with a campaign to remove online praise of the company.
The Media Equation: Not Creating Content. Just Protecting It. (March 29, 2010)
Times Topic: Google Inc.
Searches for “Tiananmen,” “Falun Gong” and “corruption” increased by more than 10 times here on Tuesday, the day that Google began offering uncensored Chinese-language search results.
But searches for censored terms on Google’s uncensored Hong Kong search engine fell off quickly in the next few days in part because most Chinese did not rush to search for politically delicate material and also because the pages newly revealed by Google were still mostly blocked in China.
In tests over the weekend from several Chinese cities, users searching for “Tiananmen” or even the names of Chinese government leaders reliably found the site google.com.hk mysteriously inaccessible for a few minutes. The more frequently used Chinese search engine Baidu, which continues to censor its results, remained accessible no matter what users searched for.
“I heard that Google is leaving China. But I don’t care. Why should I? I’m fine with Baidu,” said Xiong Huan, 27, a software engineer in Shenyang. “And for now, there’s not much change on Google either, as long as you don’t search for sensitive info.”
Nonetheless, a significant number of people took advantage of Google’s newly unfiltered service on its first day of operation. There were about 2.5 million searches for phrases containing “Tiananmen” and about 4.7 million searches for the banned religious group “Falun Gong,” according to estimates based on data from the Google Trends and Google Keyword Tool Box.
But these are tiny numbers compared with almost 400 million Chinese Internet users, and search activity quickly returned to average levels over the next few days.
Searches for “Google” in English and Chinese were far more popular, totaling more than 20 million on Tuesday, suggesting that Google users were much more concerned about their continued access to Google’s search services than their ability to find politically delicate information.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government has begun a concerted campaign to eradicate pro-Google sentiments from the Internet.
Comments on social networking sites that are supportive of Google “will be deleted in a couple of seconds,” said Oiwan Lam, 38, an independent journalist and researcher who is an expert on Chinese independent media.
The China Digital Times reported that the Chinese State Council Information Office had ordered all news sites to “carefully manage the information in exchanges, comments and other interactive sessions” and “clean up text, images and sound and videos which support Google, dedicate flowers to Google, ask Google to stay, cheer for Google and others that have a different tune from government policy.”
China routinely directs news coverage of delicate topics, but the restrictions relating to Google are particularly severe.
Javen Yang, 27, webmaster of a Guangzhou travel site, said that site’s staff was told on Friday to remove all comments relating to Google. “We have been told to delete posts relating to ‘some American company leaving China’ by the general webmaster, who usually receive notices from the government,” he said.
The State Council Information Office could not be reached for comment.
With domestic chat closely controlled, the contrast between the sentiments on Chinese and foreign networks is striking. The popular Chinese discussion site Tianya.cn had only a few dozen posts mentioning Google on Saturday. All of them were negative or neutral opinions of the company, whereas Chinese Twitter users generally applauded Google’s decision to offer uncensored results. Twitter has been vocal in its opposition to censorship. It, like Facebook and YouTube, cannot be reached from mainland China without special software.
Over all, Google’s move will make little difference in the short run to the average citizen.
Even if the Chinese can reliably access Google’s newly unfiltered search, it will be difficult for them to read pages the government does not want them to see. Domestic Web sites are easily gagged; foreign sites are blocked by a sophisticated firewall.
“Even though Google has stopped censoring, people cannot get access to sensitive news” without firewall circumvention software, said Ms. Lam. “The Great Firewall is still there.”
The government has never admitted the existence of such a firewall, nor the censorship directives issued to news organizations and Web sites. Unlike other nations that filter Internet access, China never gives notice that sites have been blocked — connections just fail, as if there were problems with the network.
Ultimately, indifference may prove more effective than any firewall. “I don’t worry that Google will be blocked in China completely,” said Luo Peng, a Beijing salesman.
“Just like YouTube and Facebook, my life is fine without them. I can always use other similar services that are available.”