Sly Google wields the knife in Chinese Internet censorship tussle

Google has introduced a new feature for Chinese users that will pull back the curtain on Chinese Internet government censorship.

Ng Han Guan/AP/File
In this March 2010 file photo, flowers are placed on the Google logo outside Google China headquarters in Beijing.

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.

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.

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