For centuries, the Yangtze River -- the longest in Asia -- has played an important role in China's history, culture, and economy. The Yangtze is as quintessentially Chinese as the Nile is Egyptian or the Rhine is German. Many businesses use its name. But if you log on to the Internet anywhere in China, type the Chinese characters meaning "Yangtze River" into Google's Hong Kong-based search engine, and click "search," the browser screen will go blank with an error message: "This webpage is not available." (Here is a screenshot taken this morning by an Internet user in Beijing.)
It's actually not an error. This ridiculous level of censorship is the work of China's national network-level censorship system, commonly known as the "Great Firewall." It has been configured to block all Google searches containing words that could potentially be used in politically sensitive contexts. Coincidentally, the Chinese word for "river" is the same character used in the surname of former President Jiang Zemin. Jiang's name has been targeted by Chinese censors for much of the past decade for various reasons -- most recently due to rumors about his health and potential role in political succession struggles. The Yangtze River itself, as well as organizations like Yangtze River Securities and Yangtze River University, are all collateral damage.
Google's relationship with China's censors has always been rocky. It is likely to hit a new rough patch after the company rolled out a new feature on Thursday that warns Chinese users when they type words that are known to set off their government's censorship system. Now, when a user in China types the Chinese characters for "Yangtze River" into the search bar, a pop-up message warns: "We've observed that searching for [the character for river] in mainland China may temporarily break your connection to Google. This interruption is outside of Google's control."
For the first time, Google is making it crystal clear to Chinese Internet users that their frequent connection problems while using its search engine are caused by the Chinese government, not by its own systems. According to Alan Eustace, Google's senior vice president for knowledge, the purpose of this feature is to "improve the search experience in mainland China." Users are given the option to "refine their searches without the problem keywords" in order to "avoid connection problems." What Google executives won't discuss -- at least publicly -- is the obvious fact that they are exposing the Chinese government's censorship tactics in an unprecedented way.
When Google entered China in 2006 with a censored search engine, the company's justification for complying with Beijing's censorship demands was, ironically, to improve "user experience." Until Google.cn was established inside China, Chinese searchers faced annoying network blockages every time they clicked on politically sensitive links in their search results. In contrast, companies operating inside China -- along with all Internet companies with license to operate inside China -- are largely exempted from Great Firewall censorship in exchange for carrying out their own internal censorship: removing results for websites and search terms on instructions from the authorities. Once Google agreed to self-censor, Chinese users were able to use the service without interference, though a note at the bottom of each page informed users that censorship was taking place in compliance with government requirements.
Then, in the wake of sophisticated cyberattacks originating from China in 2010, Google decided to redirect its Chinese search engine to Hong Kong, where it no longer modifies its search results according to instructions from government authorities, explains Dave Lyons, a Beijing-based information science researcher. "It's outside of the mechanisms of information control, unlike other search engines which have local offices [in mainland China] and are required to comply with Chinese regulation."
Although the Chinese government consistently blocks most other Google services, including YouTube, Blogger, Google Docs, and Google Plus (click here to see which services are fully or partially blocked in China), it chose not to block the Google search completely, most likely because it had grown too popular with businesspeople, educators, and commercial elites. Instead, the censors have made it more difficult to use, causing Google's market share in China to drop dramatically in the past two years. "There is still a core of [Google] users here," one Beijing-based advertising executive told me on condition that his name not be used due to sensitivities with government and client relationships, "but I believe it is largely limited to an already highly internationalized and self-selecting crowd."
The greatest beneficiary of this situation has been China's home-grown search leader, Baidu, which carries out an extensive internal censorship operation in order to avoid trouble with the authorities. Searches from Beijing for "Yangtze River" conducted from Beijing on Baidu do not trigger a connection breakdown. (See a screenshot here.) The same searches from Beijing on Microsoft's Bing and Yahoo China are similarly unmolested because both companies carry out self-censorship from within China. In other words, you can get results for, say, "Jiang Zemin," but only the ones the Chinese government wants you to see.
Google's new exposé of the Great Firewall is unlikely to do much to woo back users who have grown frustrated by the connection resets. "I don't expect it will increase Google market share," says Lyons, "because it still puts the burden on users to modify their search terms, while those engines with local operations here in China will provide a more convenient user experience." Furthermore, those who are technically savvy and truly determined to use uncensored Google search can always use widely available circumvention tools to get around the Great Firewall.