May 29, 2007 11:17 AM PDT

How good are the censors in China?

BEIJING--In China, search results will vary, depending on where you sit.

To test censorship in China, I did a search for "Tiananmen" in English in my hotel room; in English on a computer in an Internet cafe; and on Google's Chinese site, as well as Chinese search portal Baidu, using Chinese characters.

The first several pages of Google and Yahoo results in the hotel search were dominated by images from the 1989 protests, particularly the iconic "Tank Man" photo, which shows a young man standing in the path of a line of tanks. Links, for the most part, worked fine.

In the Internet cafe (which was, ironically, across the street from Tiananmen Square), the same searches produced two photos from the protests--one of Tank Man and one of wounded protesters--as well as several blanks on the first page of results. Attempts to go to page two severed the connection to the server.

If the experiment is any indication, the Great Firewall of China is more thorough than I thought.

On Google's Chinese site, nothing was blocked; the results appeared to be edited instead. Out of 27 pages of images produced on a Google search, there was only one image from the protests: a shot of the "Goddess of Liberty" statue facing the supersize painting of Chairman Mao at the entrance to the Forbidden City. It was on page 14. No image of the riots appeared and there were no blanks indicating a blocked image. There were a lot of vacation photos, though, and shots of college kids hamming it up in front of the Great Hall of the People.

On Baidu, no images from the 1989 events came up.

If the experiment is any indication, the Great Firewall of China is more thorough than I thought. It keeps sensitive information off of the sites most residents will use. Meanwhile, it makes accommodations for foreigners.

It even seems to discriminate between different types of foreigners, or at least their access points. Many of the news articles and videos critical of the government's handling of Tibet or Taiwan that don't show up in the Lonely Planet-style Internet cafe pop up fine in my French-owned hotel.

In fairness, the West seems to agonize more over Tiananmen than Chinese residents. One person I spoke to--a Chinese IT executive--said most people know of the events there, but are far more interested in the rising standard of living that has occurred in the past several years. There weren't a lot of hand-wringing editorials about the Apaches during Manifest Destiny, after all.

But the clean sweep does show the potential for altering history in the Digital Age. Limit information about past events and they can become viewed differently in the future.

If there's a bright spot, it's that it won't likely be easy for authorities to keep up. For one thing, more people are studying English here than before. New media isn't easy to police either. On an English search in the cafe on YouTube, two Tiananmen protest videos came up, but clicking on them severed the server connection.

Tiananmen through video
But search in the cafe on less popular Veoh Networks and a video called Tiananmen Not Forgotten pops up. The short film, which contains music but no dialog, consists of clips tracing the early rise of Mao in the 1940s on through to the protest and the bloody crackdown that followed. It's choppy, but so is a version of "The Star Wars Kid" on the site. If there were a window in the cafe, I would have been looking straight at the spot where the violence happened.

Similarly, on video-sharing site Grouper, clips of the riots set to music comes up. There's no dialog, but the place is tough not to recognize. To up the ante, I searched on "Tiananmen Massacre" and the clip still came up. (However, searches on a few Chinese-language video portals didn't yield results.)

Grouper also serves up videos of the Dalai Lama that cause YouTube to mysteriously stop working.

Audio gets through as well. On the BBC, an article on the Dalai Lama doesn't come up, but you can download an audio clip of the same interview.

And let's hear it for unintended consequences. An image search for the Dalai Lama on Google yields only blanks. But a site called Dalai Lama T-Shirts and Gifts--which displays pictures (on T-shirts) of the Tibetan leader--comes right up.

With text, the censors seem to do a much more nuanced job. Potentially objectionable links from well-known sites are blocked, and they do have a knack for differentiating between "objectionable" material and harmless stuff.

Links on Wikipedia culled in searches on "Tibet" and "Dalai Lama" do not come up. Of course, Dalailama.com, the site for the office of the Dalai Lama, is blocked. By contrast, a humor column entitled "10 Things You Might Know about the Dalai Lama" shows up.

The only search term that's completely nuclear on any site is unambiguous Falun Gong. Type that in and the computer goes dead. You don't even get links--the server times out right after you hit enter.

And TV? The censors just might be listening. I had CNN going in the background while typing this story. The network served up a story on civilian and military clashes in nearby Myanmar (domestic protests have become a serious issue here in the countryside). Right after the story started, it went blank. It came back at the start of a segment on the new cartoon L'il Decider.

It's probably a coincidence, but I don't think I've seen a TV do something like that in years.

See more CNET content tagged:
protest, China, Baidu.com Inc., image, Google Inc.

4 comments

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On TV censorship and total information control
I was in Beijing last year. One day while watching a CNN story in my Chinese-owned hotel room about the newly-completed Three Gorges Dam, the TV also blanked out when the report started to explore the negative aspects of the dam.

Coincidence? I think not.

Curiously, for several days I was there, there were surprisingly many articles and reports in Chinese media about Germany.

Why Germany? I was really puzzled. Seems like all the TV stations and magazines and newspapers were obsessed with stories about German cars, or German tourists visiting the Great Wall, or German businessmen touring Chinese factories, etc.

Turns out that week coincided with Angela Merkel's official state visit to China as Germany's new Chancellor.

But the way the Chinese government was able to so thoroughly control both the Chinese-language and the English-language media with the government's agenda-du-jour, to me, is even scarier than their great-firewall style censorship.
Posted by mbenedict (1001 comments )
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Interesting...
About two weeks ago I had a friend of mine in China try and pull up a few websites involving the Tiananmen Square Protests. She wasn't able to do it so I simply mirrored a few pages on a personal site of mine. It worked but my website is probably blocked in China now! ;o)
Posted by brianherbert (13 comments )
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Black Screens of Death Happen All the Time
We had BBC at my foreigner-designated apartment building when I taught English in China a few years back. Every time anything to do with Taiwan politics, "anti"-Chinese (i.e. - true) reports, or something about the Big Boy's nefarious friends in Burma and North Korea, the Darkness descended.
As BBC tends to repeat the news stories throughout the day, in roughly the same order, as a particular cycle matured, more and more would get blacked out, sometimes even including the stories before and after, just to be on the safe side.
This is nothing new.
This university I was at also no longer has BBC at all. Too much hassle for the censors, I guess.
Lazy bums.
Posted by meikuoren (1 comment )
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I was in America, where I live where another news story came up about a "child abduction".

The "abductor" had a photo and a last name - lo and behold, by some magical coincidence, the last time of the "abductor" exactly matched the last name of the "victim".

No mention was made that it was a simple child custody dispute, where one parent had obtained the right to block the other parent from equal time with his/her children.

History does change magically, thanks to the media's political agenda, no doubt.
Posted by rdupuy11 (908 comments )
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