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The Little Search Engine That Couldn’t

How China’s Communist Party tried to compete with Google, and failed miserably.

It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. In January 2010, Google announced that it was the target of cyberattacks originating in China; just a few months later it shuttered its China-based search service. By that point, privately owned Chinese Internet giant Baidu controlled a 73 percent stake in China's $1.7 billion online search market, with Google's share shrinking and smaller, entrepreneurial firms making up the rest. The Internet, then a Wild West where acerbic bloggers debated armies of government-sponsored flacks (known as the Fifty-Cent Party, for what they're allegedly paid for promoting the party line) and homegrown movies and TV shows competed for eyeballs with bootleg Hollywood films and grainy Japanese porn, was probably the only sector in China's state-dominated business landscape where the Communist Party feared to tread.

Enter the People's Daily, the party's official mouthpiece, and the website it manages, People.com.cn, which had been trying to update its offerings for a generation that has better things to do than read the paper's stilted official pronouncements. A newspaper it supervises, Global Times, was becoming a successful broadsheet both in paper and online, and People's Daily wanted to expand its reach further still.

On June 20, 2010, People's Daily announced the launch of a search engine, now titled Jike, a Chinese word for "immediately." Deng Yaping, a low-ranking party official who happened to be a four-time Olympic gold medalist in ping-pong and a Cambridge University Ph.D., was appointed the site's general manager; she said it would provide "a fresh news experience." In what was good for government relations but perhaps an inauspicious sign of what was to come, the announcement received a congratulatory message from then Propaganda Minister Liu Yunshan. "Now, the position of online news propaganda is growing more and more important, but the position of guiding online behavior has grown more and more strenuous" he wrote, adding that he hoped the website and its search engine could play a "pacesetter" role in guiding online opinion.

Almost three years and dozens of millions of dollars later, Jike has become an Internet joke, the object of mockery among Chinese netizens. The site captures less than 0.0001 percent of the search-engine market, according to China-based web analytics firm CNZZ, which notes that its "rate of utilization" is almost zero. On Sunday, tech guru Lee Kai-fu posted a series of questions about Jike to his more than 30 million followers on Sina Weibo, a popular microblogging service similar to Twitter. Why, he wondered, was it necessary to even use taxpayer money to create a search engine? And how could a search engine work without a commitment to open information?

Jike would seem to prove that it can't. The Hong Kong-based China Media Project, which monitors Chinese journalism, recently published an analysis of the website that illustrates just what kind of "guiding" Minister Liu had in mind. A search for "separation of powers" sends readers to articles arguing that such ideas are not fit for China's "unique situation." A search for dissident artist Ai Weiwei features the censorship line (common in other Chinese media properties) that "according to relevant laws and regulations, a portion of the search results aren't provided," then follows with a series of state-sponsored articles critical of Ai.

In sectors where it tries to appear liberal and open, a quick and easy search reveals that far more comprehensive offerings are available just a click away. The five bars on top feature options to search for news, webpages, pictures, videos, maps, as well as two features designed to be more unique: "Food Safety" and "Exposure Platform." Food safety displays articles about Chinese and international health problems, but nothing that's not much more accessible and better curated at Baidu. Exposure Platform's webpage, alas, is also made up almost entirely of food and health scare articles, mirroring a push by the government to improve food and health safety. Searching Exposure Platform for the English or Chinese for Bloomberg, which in 2012 published a series of explosive reports on high-level corruption, or for the scandal-ridden former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, returns an icon with a warning sign and the phrase "Very sorry, we were unable to find exposes related to" the item searched. A recent search for the Chinese phrase "Xi Jinping Corruption" on the Exposure Platform returns only one search result ... about China's new leader's calls for a crackdown on corruption. Neither Baidu nor Google pretend to be solving the government's problems by mentioning low-level scandals and ignoring the bigger issues.

Lee's comments stung, especially as Lee is the founding present of Google China, a service that Jike has unabashedly (and unsuccessfully) copied from the beginning: Jike was originally called Goso and its logo bore a suspicious resemblance to Google's famous colorful icon. Jike still seemed so similar as of November 2011 that an article in Shanghai's Oriental Morning Daily was titled "Deng Yaping: Jike Search won't completely imitate Google."

So does Jike do anything well? It's a surprisingly good source for movies. In both an English- and Chinese-language search for "Batman," for example, the first hit that comes up is a link that takes you to a "High Definition Movie Channel" with a big link for watching the movies instantly on file-sharing site Youku (though in the United States, where I conducted all of the searches mentioned in this article, the video won't run, instead showing a note that says, "Sorry, this video can only be streamed within Mainland China.").  

Perhaps the only advantage Jike holds over Google is its government connection. After Lee publically questioned Jike, he found himself locked out of his microblog for the first time. Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but that week Deng had found herself and the search engine the target of fierce criticism, with articles in the Chinese press claiming she had cut 100 people out of Jike's nearly 500-person staff, and that she bragged about her ping-pong exploits during staff meetings, telling her employees that "she was always No. 1" and that they must learn from the best and "emulate Google."

But clearly, for the Chinese Communist Party, that's easier said than done.

li xin/AFP/Getty Images

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