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Thursday, April 29, 2021

How China's Top Search Engines Censor Results About Chloe Zhao's Oscar Win

On April 26, 2012, the state sponsored Global Times reported:

On Sunday, the film Nomadland directed by Chloe Zhao won the awards for best picture and best actress at the 93rd Academy Awards. Zhao also won best director for the film. This is good. When Zhao's film won the Golden Globe Awards in February, the Chinese public cheered for her. Later, people learned of her previous interview in which she made inappropriate remarks on China. Opinions about her changed. This is understandable.

The screenshot below was taken on April 29, 2012, and shows the report, originally available here - https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202104/1222108.shtml - had been deleted.

The report can still be viewed here: https://web.archive.org/web/20210426075846/https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202104/1222108.shtml.

The screenshots below show that as of April 29, the Baidu, Qihoo, and Sogou search engines were returning no results for searches for "Chloe Zhao Oscar" [赵婷 奥斯卡]. 



This is extremely unusual. Normally this level of censorship is reserved for only the most politically sensitive individuals and events, such as:



Saturday, April 3, 2021

How China's Top Search Engines Censor Results for "Xinjiang Concentration Camps"

Let's start with the easiest example - below is a screenshot taken on April 3, 2021 of the search result page for the query "Xinjiang Concentration Camps" (新疆集中营) on Qihoo's 360.com search engine:


Qihoo returns no results. Instead, Qihoo tells users "Apologies, did not find web pages relevant to 'Xinjiang Concentration Camps'." (抱歉,未找到和 "新疆集中营"相关的网页。)

Next is a screenshot taken on April 3, 2021 of the search result page for the query "Xinjiang Concentration Camps" (新疆集中营) on Sogou's search engine:

The censorship here is relatively easy to spot - every result is from a whitelist of about a dozen sources, all of which are under the direct control of the central government or the Communist Party of China. As the screenshot below shows, even Party mouthpieces like the Global Times did not make the cut for  Sogou's whitelist.

Finally, below is a screenshot taken on April 3, 2021 of the search result page for "Xinjiang Concentration Camps" (新疆集中营) for Baidu's search engine:

Ever since Baidu stopped showing a censorship notice in 2016 (See: China's Search Engines (Except One) Stop Notifying Users of Political Censorship, http://blog.feichangdao.com/2016/06/chinas-search-engines-except-one-stop.html) Baidu's censorship is often difficult to spot. This is because it often restricts search results for politically sensitive terms to a broader whitelist that includes many websites that are licensed by the PRC government to report news. For example, unlike Sogou, in this case Baidu has included the Global Times in its search results ("huanqiu.com" appears twice in the screenshot above).

One way to spot censorship on Baidu is to compare search results over time. In this case, below is a screenshot taken on October 17, 2018 for the same query ("Xinjiang Concentration Camps" (新疆集中营):

One could be forgiven for thinking that because Baidu only showed 1.57 million search results in 2018 as opposed to 5.72 million results in 2021 that there was no censorship. The 5.72 million number is deceptive, however, because as the screenshot below taken on April 3, 2021 demonstrates, a search for "Xinjiang Concentration Camps" (新疆集中营) in quotes shows that Baidu has in fact only 10 results that contain that specific term.

 

By comparison, the screenshot below of search results for the same query taken on the same day shows that Microsoft's Bing search engine returns over 36,000 search results:


 Another indication that Baidu is censoring search results is that in 2018 Baidu was showing not only organic search results, but also a side-bar of "Relevant People" and "Popular Searches" - there is no sidebar in Baidu's 2021 search results. 

The clearest evidence of Baidu's censorship, however, is that it no longer shows any results from the  social media websites blog.sina.com.cn, tianya.cn, and Baidu's own PostBar - tieba.baidu.com - that appeared in the first page of its search results in 2018. The screenshots below were taken on April 3, 2021, and show that Baidu now tells users that it does not find any relevant web pages for searches for that query on any of those websites (e.g., 抱歉没有找到与“新疆集中营 site:blog.sina.com.cn”相关的网页).