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Every few months, US-Pakistan relations seem to fall to a new low.
But even as Washington and Islamabad figure out how to mend their struggling relationship, soft diplomacy efforts – and billions of dollars – are in place to keep US-Pakistan ties from fraying completely.
In fact, a group of 22 high-ranking Pakistani education officials and policymakers are in the US meeting with education experts. It's part of a first-of-its-kind, USAID-funded project to professionalize Pakistan's teachers and upgrade the quality of education in the nation's elementary and secondary schools.
The USAID Teacher Education Project alone may not patch the relationship between the US and Pakistan, but funding education projects is one way the US is able to support the kinds of moderate values that both the Pakistani government and the US say they want to promote.
“We need a strong civil society here in Pakistan that is safe and secure. We cannot produce that without good education,” says Mahmood ul Hasan Butt, director of the USAID Teacher Education Project, which is being implemented by EDC, a nonprofit based outside Boston.
Pakistan is having trouble attracting both teachers and students to classrooms. Dr. Butt attributes a large portion of these problems to the state of the teaching profession. Until now, there was no special training for teachers and few incentives to teach.
The USAID Teacher Education Project is a $75 million, five-year project under the Kerry-Lugar-Bergman Act. Since the project began in 2009, Pakistani teachers and policymakers have been meeting regularly in Pakistan, working on developing and implementing their own education policy changes, developing new syllabuses, and working with the higher education commission to implement new education degrees.
Pakistan is introducing both a two-year associate's degree and a four-year bachelor’s degree in education, with a plan to require a bachelor's degree in education by 2018. To encourage teachers to get the degree now, schools are offering higher pay to teachers with the new qualification.
Some in Pakistan criticize USAID’s approach to dispensing aid and Pakistan’s apparent dependence on it. The US has pumped $20.7 billion in aid into Pakistan since 2002 (some two-thirds military, the rest civilian). US lawmakers often complain that Pakistan does not cooperate as much as hoped, and have threatened to suspend aid. And in some cases have acted: After the doctor who helped the US track down Osama bin Laden was sentenced to 33 years in prison, the Senate voted to cut aid by $33 million. And more recently, the US cut $20 million for the Pakistani version of Sesame Street after USAID made allegations of fraud against the show's producers.
But Gita Steiner-Khamsi says this project is worth keeping.
“It’s a different approach to aid work. That’s what makes it interesting,” says Ms. Steiner-Khamsi, professor of education at Teachers College at Columbia University, which is a partner of the program. Rather than deliver an aid package and having the donor dictate how to implement it, this project gives ownership to Pakistanis, and US partners act as consultants, she says.
That furthers Pakistan’s goal to “move away from dependence and move to self-reliance,” says Butt. “It took America 50 years to transform its educational model. We’re trying to do that in five years,” he says, adding that the USAID project is helping accomplish something that should have been done years ago in Pakistan.
Today, almost 6,000 Pakistani students, policymakers, and faculty members from 75 colleges and 22 universities are expected to participate in the various project activities over the life of the project, according to administrators. They would presumably then help sustain the teacher education reform movement in Pakistan. So far, 51 out of 75 colleges have begun offering the new associate's degree. On top of that, some colleges and universities not associated with the project are starting to model it. Next year, when the first group graduates from the bachelor's degree program and starts teaching, officials will begin to assess how having better teacher credentials affects student success.
The 2015 United Nations Millennium Development Goals in education aim for Pakistan to have all children complete primary school and to reach gender parity in enrollments. But among Pakistan’s 170 million residents, some 40 percent are under the age of 14; getting these children – especially girls – to go to school is one of the biggest hurdles to educating Pakistan. Only 50 percent of girls and 60 percent of boys go to primary school.
Some participants worry about what will happen after the funding dries up in 2013. “The past few years have been good years for Pakistan’s education. If we needed something, we got it. Now money is tight,” says Maryam Rab, an administrator at Fatima Jinnah Women’s University.
Butt acknowledges this and says it’s a tough problem, but individual institutions will have to figure out ways to better manage their budgets. He’s confident the program will succeed.
It’s too soon to tell what that will look like in quantitative terms, say analysts, but the Kerry-Lugar-Bergman Act was designed to improve relations between regular Pakistanis and Americans, and these types of projects make a difference on a people-to-people level.
“The program,” says Perveen Munshi, dean of the Department of Education and professor at the University of Sindh, “is very wonderfully impressive.” She adds that as busy as it is – keeping her here in classes and back-to-back seminars at Teachers College, Columbia University – “it is bringing understanding not only of the US, but of all world education. This is one learning place.”
For the first time, more people around the globe think that China, not America, is the world’s biggest economic power.
They are wrong, of course, at least for the time being. America’s economy is much larger than China’s however you measure it, and when it comes to personal wealth, there is no contest.
Americans themselves are almost evenly split over who they perceive to be the premier global economic heavyweight: 40 percent say the US, 41 percent say China. (Interestingly, the Chinese have no such illusions about themselves – they put America ahead by a margin of 48 to 29.)
Europeans seem most overawed by the China hype, with 62 percent of Germans putting China at the top of the heap, compared with just 13 percent who still see America as the world’s top economic power. In Britain the split is 58-28, in Spain it’s 57-26.
Worldwide, 42 percent of respondents put China ahead of America; 36 percent perceived it the other way around.
That 42 percent of respondents are off the mark. There are different ways to measure the size of a national economy, but even using the system most generous to the Chinese, called Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), the US economy was nearly half as big again as its nearest rival, the Chinese one, in 2010, according to the IMF. US Gross Domestic Product weighed in at $14.5 trillion against China’s $10.1 trillion, according to the September 2011 IMF report.
If you go by straightforward GDP, America’s economy is two-and-a-half times as big as China’s according to the World Bank. And if you compare personal wealth, well, there is no comparison.
Of course you could use other criteria than mere size to judge which nation is the world’s leading economic power; innovation, for example.
But China still lags well behind the US in that field too. And when it comes to how much each country has invested abroad, Americans account for 20 percent of global foreign direct investment and the Chinese for only about 1.5 percent.
When it comes to energy, dynamism, and growth potential, the Chinese do look more impressive. And, of course, China’s population is five times bigger than America’s. At current growth rates, China probably will have the biggest economy in the world (measured on the basis of PPP) within 15 years.
But it hasn’t happened yet, whatever people around the world may believe.
For the Chinese government, this weekend’s space shot – the country’s first manned space flight for nearly four years – is a matter of national pride.
For some canny Chinese stock pickers, however, it is a chance to make money.
The Shenzhou 9 mission, due to take off on Saturday, will send three “taikonauts,” one of them a woman, to dock for the first time with China’s orbiting space lab. The maneuver will mark a major step toward Beijing’s goal of building its own space station.
Back on Earth, meanwhile, the flurry of publicity surrounding the launch has done wonders for the stock prices of Chinese state-owned firms in the space sector. One of them has seen the value of its shares jump 16 percent since the mission was announced Saturday.
The Chinese government and the companies it controls are generally tight-lipped about the space program, releasing information to the public only at high points such as rocket launches. “Shares go up because they are stimulated by the news,” says Li Qin, an aerospace analyst at China Investment Securities in Beijing.
At the same time, adds Mr. Li, launches are evidence of progress in China’s space sector, “which sparks market expectations of the sector, so speculative investors jump in.”
The last time China launched a rocket in its space lab program, last year, space sector stocks bucked a falling market to rise by about 10 percent, Li recalls. They have risen by the same amount over the past four days, he says, led by Shaanxi Aerospace Power, a manufacturer of rocket parts, whose shares have leaped 16 percent.
Last year, though, as soon as the Shenzhou 8 rocket had docked with the space lab and interest in its journey faded, the stock prices fell back to their previous levels, Li says, and he expects the same thing to happen this time.
“You could make money if you’d bought space sector stocks on Monday,” he says. “But you’d have to be careful to sell them before the rocket is launched.”
For sheer roller-coaster thrills, picture yourself as an oil market analyst.
Imagine the challenge of (correctly) predicting the future price of oil and all those wonderful fuel products Americans love to use, in the midst of a crucial election year.
When oil-producing countries like Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Nigeria, become unstable, oil prices can soar. When economies shrink in energy-consuming places like Europe and the United States, oil prices can sink. When both trends happen at the same time, oil market analysts dig into their pockets for a coin to flip.
In February, when oil prices surged over $110 a barrel, some oil analysts were predicting an End Times scenario, where the US economy would go into a fetal position, rocking back and forth and singing Adele songs. Fox News Channel, the drama queen of the global news pageant, was betting that gasoline pump prices were likely to hit $8 a gallon, a factoid that, at least for now, appears to be utterly false.
Early this week, crude oil prices had dropped to $84, driven downward by the lower demand of a contracting global economy. Gasoline prices are dropping with them, down to a national average $3.56. This is significantly higher than the 26 cents it cost to fill your father’s – or your grandfather’s – Oldsmobile, but the dollar is worth less today than it was in the 1950s. In inflation-adjusted dollars, we have been paying $10 to $30 a barrel for the past 160 years or so, with just a few major spikes in 1860-1861, 1979-1980 and 2007-2008.
Now the bad news has gotten so bad, it’s good. On Wednesday, oil prices shot up again to $85.56 a barrel, ahead of Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke’s testimony before Congress, as oil market analysts bet that he would urge for some kind of stimulus package.
Aside from gasoline price swings from nearly $4 a gallon to $3.50, the volatility of oil prices has other effects. Higher oil prices, which drive up the cost of production, make factory owners think twice about expanding. High oil prices also encourage consumers to start thinking about conservation, such as turning off lights and buying fuel efficient cars. But high oil prices also make oil exploration in new places more attractive. And as oil companies start finding oil in untapped fields in Kenya, North Dakota, Ghana, Alberta, Israel, and Somalia, that increases the overall supply of oil, which ends up driving prices down again.
A growing global supply of oil might seem to be the solution to America’s economic doldrums, but this solution brings a host of ecological problems, according to Foreign Policy magazine’s Steve Levine.
Already, carbon emissions last year reached levels that are linked by scientists with a 2 degree rise in global temperatures over the past 50 years, according to the International Energy Agency. But if carbon emissions continue to rise – as they will if more energy is produced, and if energy prices drop enough for people to consume more of it – the world will “blow through” emissions targets agreed to in global treaties.
So this provides what may be the most vexing moral dilemma of our times: to grow, or not to grow. That is the question.
One thing you will notice about this process: It has very little to do with politicians. These days, the price of oil is determined more by roughnecks in greasy denims or Wall Street futures traders than by Middle Eastern oil sheikhs or White House economists. But voters, driven by fear or angst, still feel the need to punish the man in charge for their economic suffering. And in an election year – as former French President Nicolas Sarkozy can attest -- the economy matters above all else.
The roller coaster continues. Buckle up, Mr. Obama.
The cutbacks come amid allegations of fraud by the Lahore-based theater group that produces the children’s show, the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop, but it also comes at a time when the US-Pakistani relationship is strained, and when the US government is cutting back dramatically on foreign aid worldwide.
USAID allocated $20 million for the production of Sim Sim Hamara (which means “Our Street” in Urdu), and $6.7 million of that was used to produce the first season, which premiered in 2011. The remainder of the contract has been terminated, pending the results of an investigation into the fraud charges.
"We did launch an investigation into the allegations. We also sent the theater workshop a letter that terminates the project agreement," US State Department spokesman Mark Toner told a news briefing in Washington on June 5. "No one is questioning, obviously, the value and positive impact of this kind of programming for children. But this is about allegations of corruption."
Faizaan Peerzada, Rafi Peer’s chief operating officer, denied the fraud charges, saying in a statement, “Rafi Peer is proud of its association with the project and the quality of children’s educational television programming created within Pakistan as a result.”
Whatever the ultimate result of the investigation, the shutdown of funds into children’s broadcasting in Pakistan come at an unfortunate time in the US-Pakistani relationship.
NATO airstrikes and US special forces raids on Pakistani territory have strained Pakistani patience with the US-led war on terror, and Pakistan has shut off NATO’s use of Pakistani roads and ports to resupply its troops in Afghanistan. The US, meanwhile, has grown increasingly frustrated with what it sees as signs of either Pakistani collusion with militant groups such as the Taliban, or incompetence in bringing them under control.
But the cutbacks should also be seen in a broader context of America’s steady pullback from foreign assistance. In 2011, US foreign assistance totaled $25.5 billion. President Obama requested an increase in those funds for 2012, up to $28.5 billion, but Congress eventually agreed to a budget of $20 billion, a cutback of almost 20 percent from 2011.
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Sesame Street never stood a chance to patch up the dysfunctional relationship between the US and Pakistan, but a funding cutoff eliminates one more way for the US to project the kinds of moderate values that both it and the Pakistani government seek to reinforce.
It also removes one more tool for educators in a country of 170 million where only 50 percent of girls and 60 percent of boys go to primary school.
Pakistan isn’t the only country to lose funding for a local version of Sesame Street. In January, the US State Department announced it was cutting funds for Sharaa Sim Sim, the Palestinian version of the show, because of funding cuts from Congress.
“Unfortunately, with the cut in Economic Support Funds, we had to make some hard tradeoffs,” US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, noting that the Israeli version of the show would continue to receive funding. “This is programming in Israel designed to promote common sense of citizenship between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Palestinians, but also between all Israelis and folks in the Palestinian territories.”
For some Americans, especially those who are skeptical about the effectiveness of American foreign aid, cutting $20 million in funds for the Pakistani version of Elmo may just feel good. Public perceptions of waste in foreign aid, often based on evidence, have a powerful effect on the American public, since negative news and scandal are the only stories about foreign aid that they are likely to hear in the American news media.
Yet nonmilitary foreign aid is a pittance compared to the money that the Pentagon receives each year. According to PBS columnist Joshua Foust, the Pentagon’s budget has doubled from 2001 to today, and now stands at $670 billion.
That kind of math is something even a child can understand. If Sim Sim Hamara goes off the air, but US bombs keep dropping, another generation of Pakistanis will have only one thing to associate the US government with: war.
NATO may not know the final result of its intervention in Afghanistan, but it now has an exit plan. And the exit will take place through Central Asia, the same route the Soviet troops took after their withdrawal in 1988 and 1989.
As relations worsen between the United States and Pakistan, NATO has signed deals with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan (see map here) to move out the tons of equipment that must be withdrawn by 2014, when NATO makes its final exit from Afghanistan.
Speaking with Agence France-Presse news agency, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that NATO now considers Central Asia and its Russian-built roads to be the most expedient route out of Afghanistan.
"These agreements will give us a range of new options and the robust and flexible transport network we need," Mr. Rasmussen said.
Tarnished by more than a decade of war, mutual recriminations, and foreign policy goals that are increasingly at odds, the US-Pakistani relationship now has reached a nadir. From the early post 9/11 days, when NATO received 90 percent of its supplies for the Afghan war through the Pakistani port of Karachi, now Pakistan has cut off NATO’s old supply routes. Last November, Pakistan banned NATO’s use of Pakistani territory after NATO planes mistakenly bombed a Pakistani post, killing 24 Pakistani soldiers.
For Pakistan, the NATO bombing was the last straw, following the violation of its territorial sovereignty last year when US Navy SEALs captured and killed Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad.
Pakistani officials complain that Washington simply cannot grasp the difficulty of reining in popular Islamist militant groups in a country that sees itself constantly under threat from outside. Washington fails to see the threat that Pakistan’s larger rival, India, poses to Pakistan's very existence, and fails to understand how angry Pakistani citizens become after each successive aerial attack over their territory. For its part, Washington has come to see Pakistan as an unreliable ally, a country where the Pakistani military maintains ties with the very groups that attack US troops on Afghan soil, where America’s biggest enemy, Mr. bin Laden, was taking up residence in a military garrison town.
NATO and Pakistan could still patch things up. Pakistan has been hinting lately that there is still room for dialogue, with Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar suggesting that the US simply needed to apologize for the November bombing of its troops.
"For us in Pakistan ... the most popular thing to do right now is to not move on NATO supply routes at all. It is to close them forever," Ms. Khar told AFP in an interview. "If I were a political adviser to the prime minister, this is what I would advise him to do. But I'm not advising him to do that ... because what is at stake is much more important for Pakistan than just winning an election."
Khar may not want to wait for an apology, given America’s current election season. President Obama seems disinclined, to say the least, and his Republican rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney – whose campaign strategy is to attack Mr. Obama as weak on national defense – is about as likely to push for a NATO apology as he is to push for gun control.
So in the meantime, NATO is looking north, and expanding its options.
Trucking out tanks, artillery pieces, and other military devices that were designed specifically to destroy the Soviet Union, on a route through the former Soviet states themselves, is not only rich with irony, it is also quite expensive. The cost of the northern supply route is nearly double that of the Pakistani route, but at least it’s cheaper than flying all that equipment out by air, which costs the US military $14,000 per ton.
The Chinese government today warned the US Embassy in Beijing to stop telling the world just how bad the capital’s air really is.
For the past three years or so, the embassy has Tweeted the hourly readings from a pollution monitor on its roof, providing the only real time indicator of what we are breathing here.
Deputy Environment Minister Wu Xiaoqing, however, told reporters today that this was a violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Only the Chinese government is allowed to measure and publish air quality information, he said.
The trouble with that is that I am not the only person in Beijing who has sometimes found it hard to reconcile the soupy grey fog that I often see outside my window with the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center’s insistence that pollution is “light.”
That is a definition taken from the US EPA, and Wu said it was not fair to judge Chinese air by American standards, which are stricter than Chinese ones, because of “our current stage of development.”
This is not the first time the US Twitter feed has got into trouble. On Nov. 19, 2010, when the Air Quality Index soared above 500 – the top of the US scale – the reading was described in a tweet as “crazy bad.”
The term appeared to have been inserted into the monitoring program by a programmer who never expected such an outlandishly high reading: Anything over 300 “would trigger a health warning of emergency conditions” in America, according to an EPA website.
Nowadays, readings over 500 (20 times higher than World Health Organization guidelines) are described simply as “beyond index.”
The Beijing municipality website publishes its own hourly readings of PM 2.5 tiny particulate matter, regarded as especially dangerous, but only 24 hours after the fact. It also publishes an average figure for air quality over the previous 24 hours, but does not characterize it as good, bad, or hazardous.
Wu’s warning to the US embassy will doubtless re-focus public attention on the real quality of Beijing’s air, which cannot be good for the authorities. What’s odd is that for the past few early summer days here the air has mostly been clear, and even gloriously sharp on one or two evenings.
If the embassy Twitter feed dies, we shall just have to go back to trusting our eyes and our noses. Just because we cannot put a scientific figure to it, doesn’t mean we don’t know what we are breathing.
For the 23rd year in a row, the Chinese authorities today continued their efforts to impose collective amnesia about the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989, seeking to stamp out any public reference to the event.
For Beijing, the date, “6.4” as it has become known in China, is one not to be commemorated, but rather obliterated from the calendar. The government has always refused to discuss what happened when soldiers were ordered to disperse pro-democracy demonstrators on Tiananmen Square. Officially, they killed only about 200 protesters; but activists’ estimates range from several hundreds to several thousands.
The official blanket denial of the date has worked, to a large extent: Few ordinary Chinese citizens under the age of 30 are aware of the Tiananmen demonstrations or their tragic end. But censors remain determined to foil any attempt by people who do know what happened to say anything about it. Anything at all.
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Censors at Sina Weibo, the popular Twitter-like social media platform, were working overtime to block searches for – or references to – “6.4” or other obvious signifiers such as “tank,” “crush,” “never forget,” and “square.”
“535” was a forbidden term, too, because Internet users have taken to referring to May 35, instead of June 4. Classically minded censors wouldn’t let you post anything with VIIIIXVIIV in it either, in case readers familiar with Roman numerals could decipher 89.6.4. And by late afternoon, even the word “today” had been banned.
Over the weekend, Sina Weibo disabled its candle icon, which users might find an appropriate symbol with which to commemorate the Tiananmen dead. An explanation from the website said the icon was “currently being optimized” but nobody believed it. Before long there were 200,000 posts on Sina referring to “Weibo” and “candle” and the next thing anyone knew, the word “candle” itself became a banned search term.
As if to highlight the absurdity of how hard Sina Weibo censors were working, an impeccable and seemingly irrelevant source of information, the Shanghai Stock Exchange, suddenly turned subversive. By an extraordinary coincidence (or maybe not), the Shanghai Composite Index, which measures the market’s daily movement, fell on Monday by 64.89 points, in an uncensorable reminder of the date of the massacre.
Though the official campaign to airbrush the Tiananmen Square events out of Chinese history has been successful with most citizens, there are some, of course, who can never forget because their own children died.
One such father, Ya Weilin, apparently exhausted and driven to despair by his failure after nearly a quarter of a century to persuade the government to account for his son’s death, hanged himself 10 days ago. Tiananmen is still claiming victims; 23 years ago they were felled by bullets. Today they succumb to silence.
Queen Elizabeth graces the front page of Google today in the UK in a doodle marking her diamond jubilee, offering the rest of the world but a glimpse of the playful pop art and consumer kitsch on display here in Britain.
Scots guardsmen cupcake toppers, union jacks on toothpicks, ice queen scoops. Bunting: enough to string together the old empire. Royal photos on thimbles, spoons, tea cups, shot glasses, egg cups, tea towels – the usual tat, as the Brits say. Jubilee thongs? Yes.
Then there’s the cleverness contest surrounding the WWII-era slogan, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Written on a women's compact: “Keep Calm and Powder On.”
Comparatively, Google’s doodle is an understated affair. The letter O’s are diamonds, symbolic of the 60th (diamond) anniversary on the throne. The E sits as a jewel in the queen’s crown. The queen appears in two-dimensional contour; her beloved corgis, however, look ready to leap off the page.
The playful riffs on royal themes reflect the generally favorable mood toward the royals of late.
A YouGov poll last month found 67 percent agreeing the monarchy is good for Britain, and 86 percent approve of Queen Elizabeth. This is up from the days when her children's divorces dominated the headlines and her slowness to show emotion over the death of Princess Diana frustrated many.
Still, the public mood is not really one of royal reverence. Britons are in party mode at the start of a long weekend – Monday and Tuesday being holidays as part of the four-day official jubilee celebration. Many Londoners took the chance to flee on summer vacations, as foreign and British tourists crowd into the city for events that include Sunday’s royal family flotilla on the Thames and Tuesday’s carriage procession.
Among the street art for the crowds will be the construction Sunday of a 94-sq.-ft. portrait of Queen Elizabeth made from 3,120 squares of cake – one for each week of her reign.
German-born baker Gerhard Jenne came up with the idea. Mr. Jenne dipped each piece of lemon cake into one of 24 frosting colors, turning each into a pixel of this icing illustration.
Jenne’s a fan of the queen, but not so much so that he feels the need to become her subject even 30 years after moving to London. He doesn’t expect to meet her on Sunday, when he publicly arranges the cake squares into the portrait.
“It’s very interesting how the queen has changed. Even from 30 years ago, [the royals] are much closer to the people now,” he says. “You almost feel like she might come see you…. There could just be a 1 in 40 million chance.”
After spending hundreds of hours on the cake, he expects it to be gobbled up within 20 minutes when it’s opened up to the crowds.
Some customers in his Konditor & Cook bakeries have asked him if it’s proper for an image of Her Highness to be eaten.
“I just said yes, it’s fine by me. At the end of the day, it’s a cake, it’s a bit of fun. And she seems like a humorous person.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed the phrase "Keep calm and carry on" to the British royal family.
This week the search engine giant Google kept a polite smile on its face as it stuck its shiv in up to the hilt, introducing a feature to its Chinese site that tells users exactly when the censors have blocked a search word for being too “sensitive.”
The Chinese government keeps its list of banned search terms secret; Google is now revealing them. But not once did Google Vice President Alan Eustace mention the word “censorship” in his blog introducing the new feature.
Instead he noted that users in China “are regularly getting error messages” when they search for “a particular subset of queries.” He mentioned the word “jiang” as a case in point – but did not explain why such a common surname that also means “river” should be a banned search term.
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It’s because “jiang” is the surname of former president Jiang Zemin, about whom the censors don’t want Chinese citizens to find out much because most of what is written about him on the web concerns his allegedly poor health and his role in succession struggles within the ruling Communist party.
The problem for Google users in China, and Google, is that whenever a user searched for a banned word not only would the search yield only an error message, but the connection to Google would be lost for a minute or so, which is highly inconvenient.
No wonder that Google has only 16 percent of the Chinese search engine market, way behind local competitor Baidu, with 78 percent. Baidu self-censors, so its users have no problem searching “jiang.” Google has refused to self censor since 2010, when it withdrew from the mainland and based itself in Hong Kong.
Google’s new feature, designed, says Mr. Eustace, to “help improve the search experience in mainland China,” will warn users when they are searching for a banned word that will cut their connection, allowing them to re-define their searchwords.
Google has identified the “dangerous” words after analyzing the censors’ response to 350,000 of the most popular search queries in China, Eustace explained. And now it is telling its users what those words are, in defiance of the Chinese government’s policy of keeping them secret.
But not too defiant. The tone of Eustace’s blog could not have been smoother nor its references to censorship more roundabout. Google, it seems, does not want to upset Beijing too much.
Perhaps that is because although the US company is pretty much out of the search engine market here, and the censors block or mess with all its products except Gmail, Google still has a big commercial interest in China.
The firm is pushing its Android mobile phone operating system hard, and successfully, with Chinese handset manufacturers. Last month it won Beijing’s approval for its $12.5 billion purchase of Motorola Mobility, a wireless device maker. Under those circumstances, it is probably best not to be too blunt when you are challenging the authorities. A polite smile to mask the knife thrust seems a wise idea.