Falling Short: Search Engines Sift and Censor

Search Engines Sift and Censor

Type something as benign-sounding as “open letter” into a Chinese Internet search engine, and it’s likely you won’t get a complete list of the Web’s offerings on that topic. For China’s Internet police, a critical first step in controlling the flow of online information is to filter search results. Search engines in China do not yield blank responses; that would attract too much resentment. But with search engines limiting the scope of response, sensitive information can be kept behind a firewall.

In May 2007, just months before the 17th Communist Party Congress, an unidentified blogger posted a list of about 700 words that generate censored responses when entered into a Chinese search engine. Fewer than 50 words relate to pornography; most are related to politics and current affairs, including about 70 words that relate to specific incidents of social unrest.

The person who compiled the list said it is being used by the Chinese search engine Zhongsou, and that other search engines have similar lists. The blogger, who published the findings for online forums and e-mail groups, apparently had both technical expertise and access. After the list was revealed, Chinese bloggers tested its validity by entering the censored terms into the search engine and found it to be accurate.

Below, translated from Chinese, is a sampling of the terms that generated censored responses.

On party politics:
Inside Zhongnanhai [China’s leadership compound]; China’s next emperor; hot candidates before the Party’s 17th Congress; Chinese Communist Party’s dictatorship; 17th Congress Committee member; leaders 17th Congress; Standing Committee 17th Congress; Central Committee Politburo; arrangements for 17th Congress; preparation and leadership group; 17th Congress predictions; 17th Congress future; 17th Congress personnel changes; 17th list; favored by the general secretary; Shanghai Gang [the bloc associated with former President Jiang Zemin].

On the president:
Hu Jintao’s power in the military; Hu Jintao’s faction; Hu Jintao’s new politics; Hu Jintao’s strategy; Hu Jintao’s family; Hu Jintao’s favorite; open letter Hu Jintao.

On political personalities and their fortunes:
Politics favor Li Keqiang; Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang; Zeng Qinghong’s power weakened; Xi Jinping and the politburo; Wang Lequan; politics and law; Song Ping’s words; hot candidate; Li Yuanchao [minister of propaganda]; dark horse Li Yuanchao; Li Keqiang fifth generation leader; Secretary Hu’s open letter; open letter.

On families and history:
Inside the Chinese military; children of high officials; children of high officials wasting public money; analysis of high-level position changes; compromised arrangements between party factions; fifth generation political stars; fifth generation leadership; power struggle of CCP; one party dictatorship; using journalism to influence today’s society; record of lies in Red Dynasty; 10 true lies in 2006; questioning re-education through labor; Cultural Revolution 40 year anniversary; June 4th event [Tiananmen Square crackdown]; overseas Chinese democracy movement; Falun Gong.

On conflicts and unrest:
Student riots in Ganjiang college; Guangdong business college on strike; Hongbei college riots; riots in Shengda college; student riots; Zhengzhou University riots; collapse of number 10 subway line; open letter against adjusting price for taxis; investigation in Taishi village; eviction in Tianjin; Shigu village, Linyi, and Shandong province [all sites of village unrest].

On dissent:
Pu Zhiqiang [a leading civil rights lawyer]; Teng Xingshan [a man forced to confess to a murder he did not commit]; Gao Zhisheng [a prominent human rights lawyer]; Hu Yaobang [a reform-minded leader]; Zhao Ziyang [the Party general secretary purged for his sympathetic stance toward Tiananmen Square demonstrators]; Lu Yuegang [a prominent investigative reporter].

» return to Chapter 9:
Online Rules: A Study in Paradox