Tea Leaf Nation

A Map of China, By Stereotype

Auto-complete results by the country's largest search engine shed light on how Chinese view one another.

Why is the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang "so chaotic?" Why are many from the southern metropolis of Shanghai "unfit to lead"? And do people from central Henan Province really steal manhole covers? These are just some of the questions -- ranging from the provocative, to the offensive, to the downright ridiculous -- that Chinese people ask about themselves and each other on Baidu, the country's top search engine, which says it processes about 5 billion queries each day.

In the West, amateur sociologists use Google's voluminous search history to finish half-written questions about different regions. They then plot the stereotypes onto maps such as this one of the United States, which The Atlantic called "The U.S. According to Autocomplete." China, with its long history of regional stereotyping, is ripe for similar treatment. After all, it is home to 22 provinces, five autonomous regions, four municipalities, as well as Taiwan, what some there would call a renegade province, pictured above because of its prevalence on Baidu. Held together by a common history and culture (and occasionally force), the regions are divided by real and perceived differences in wealth, environment, stability, ethnicity, and personality -- not to mention variations in that history and culture. Chinese society has deep schisms, one of which came into devastating relief on March 1, when a terror attack on a Kunming train station resulted in 33 deaths and 143 injuries. Chinese authorities have attributed the attacks to separatists from Xinjiang.

Studying China's collective online subconscious via auto-complete requires flexibility. Results change over time, so readers may not be able to replicate results with fealty. But even allowing for these caveats, online queries about China's regions are revealing, and they have a particularly sharp edge where they concern peripheral regions whose restive local populations sustain independence movements of varying intensity. Below is a list of common questions netizens pose about Xinjiang, a region of 22 million whose roughly 10 million ethnic Uighur Muslim minority lives alongside Han Chinese in a state of tension that frequently erupts into violence:

Others also wonder why Xinjiang's Turkic Uighur minorities look like foreigners, and why they hate the Han Chinese, who make up roughly 92 percent of China's total population but less than 50 percent in Xinjiang. Meanwhile, Tibet -- also home to simmering discontent with Chinese rule -- produces no auto-completed results at all. The same is true for its neighbor Qinghai, which sits on the Tibetan plateau and has a large ethnic Tibetan population. (Deleting the leading "why" from queries about Tibet produces many auto-completed results, mostly about travel tips and historical television dramas set in the region.)

Netizens associate several northern regions with varying degrees of violence. Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang -- collectively called the Northeast -- are famous for their Siberian winters as well as their beautiful women, but the apparently pugnacious locals are also known for starting fights. Inner Mongolia calls to mind the brutal December 2013 hazing of newly recruited firefighters, and the tiny region of Ningxia's sole result concerns the grisly murder of a family of seven following a marital spat in October 2013.   

One of the starkest patterns involves queries into the omnipresent divide between China's rich coastal provinces and poor inland ones. Netizens appear envious of wealthy Jiangsu and Zhejiang, asking why they are so developed and rich. China's wealthiest province, Guangdong, is curiously considered "chaotic" in addition to "developed," while the moderately wealthy Fujian is seen as a "poor" coastal underperformer.

One might expect Beijing and Shanghai to impress for their comparative wealth and modernity, but the general gloom of netizen queries hints at disappointed expectations. Those researching Shanghai seem particularly interested in the city's lack of public heating, a service provided throughout northern China but denied elsewhere. Meanwhile, searches for "smog" crowd the list of results for Beijing, not surprising given the city's frequent bouts with choking pollution.

Seven inland regions are associated with terms like "poor," "backward," and "undeveloped," with none coming off worse than Henan. Perhaps it's because of that province's roughly 100 million residents supposed penchant for stealing manhole covers, however inaccurate or distorted that picture may be:

A case can be made that the dismal repute of Henan and other poor inland regions derives from modern China's society of mass migration, which puts people of vastly unequal regions side-by-side in big cities and creates conditions for new stereotypes to form and old ones to spread. Many migrants are second-class citizens in all but name, scorned by local residents, consigned to working menial jobs, and often associated with rising crime and other social ills. The dislike can be mutual -- several queries about Shanghai ask why the "exclusive" natives look down on outsiders. One common question asks simply why Shanghai people hate Anhui people, many of whom come to seek their fortunes in the coastal metropolis.

Not all queries are so severe. Many revolve around physical appearance; netizens ask why Shandong people are so tall and why Sichuanese are short and have good skin. The top result for Hubei concerns "nine-headed birds" -- not a reference to local fauna, but an ancient mythical creature that has since become a sometimes-derogatory nickname for allegedly crafty locals. Users also ask why the people of Shanxi love vinegar, and why those in Sichuan and Hunan eat chili peppers. The adventurous, simian-craving dining habits of Guangdong attract particular attention. Most regions also feature searches related to local history: All of Shaanxi's results revolve around nicknames from its time as the cradle of Chinese civilization.

Baidu's name, which means "hundreds of times," was inspired by an 800-year-old Song Dynasty poem about the persistent search for an ideal beauty in the midst of chaos. Those Chinese using the search engine are surely looking for reliable information in a chaotic Chinese Internet. But for outsiders looking to understand how China views itself, Baidu's auto-completed questions are at least as illuminating as its answers.

Images by Foreign Policy

Tea Leaf Nation

The 'T-word'

Chinese are angry at Western media's portrayal of a dastardly attack there.

In Chinese, just as in English, quotation marks can indicate attribution, doubt, or dismissiveness. And just like in the United States, terrorism is a sensitive issue in China, where disaffected citizens have at times used violence for political ends. In such an environment, employing quotation marks around a highly-politicized word like terrorism can be combustible. 

On the evening of March 1, a group of knife-wielding assailants dressed in black burst into a crowded railway station in Kunming, the capital of China's southwest Yunnan province, and slashed travelers, passersby, and police, killing 29 and injuring 143, including children and the elderly. Police shot dead four assailants at the scene, and say they have captured all the surviving suspects. Eleven hours after the attack, China's state-run Xinhua News Agency announced that based on evidence found at the crime scene, separatists from the northwest Chinese region of Xinjiang are behind the terrorist attack. (So far, no groups or individuals have claimed responsibility, and Beijing released the name of one alleged perpetrator.)  

Following the Xinhua report, many major Western media outlets covering the event, including The New York Times, CNN, Reuters, BBC, and CBC of Canada, used quotation marks around the word "terrorism," some in the article's headline, some in the body, and some in both. Chinese Internet users and domestic media were quick to notice this punctuation choice, and a storm of anger against perceived Western bias quickly brewed on Sina Weibo, China's largest microblogging platform.

While some Weibo users interpreted the quotation marks as attribution to the Chinese government's official statements, which most Western media outlets usually take with a grain of salt, many detected sympathy with separatist aspirations in Xinjiang, or what one called an "obvious agenda." Another wrote that some of the articles about the Kunming attacks ended "with the Han Chinese's invasion of Xinjiang's religion and culture," which "turned the carnage of civilians into a political game." (Xinjiang became part of the People's Republic of China in 1949, after Communist troops entered the region.) Tech entrepreneur Luo Yonghao tweeted to his 5.8 million followers that "uniformed thugs indiscriminately killing innocent civilians undoubtedly constitutes terrorism." He wrote that he had always admired the West, but "cannot stand" the way Western media first reported the Kunming attack. 

Chinese state media did not sit on the sidelines. The People's Daily, a Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, also took to Weibo to demand an explanation from Western media for their "blindness and deafness" and "intentional downplaying of the violence and sympathy toward the assailants." "China sympathized with the September 11 terrorist attack," it wrote in a popular tweet. "But some American media harbored double standards regarding the Kunming terrorist attack. Why?"

A post by the official account of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing fueled the outrage. It did not, as many Chinese had hoped, characterize the attack as terrorism, but instead called it a "senseless act of violence." Almost all of the more than 50,000 comments left on the post accused the U.S. Embassy of a double standard when it comes to violence in China. "If the Kunming attack were a 'horrific, senseless act of violence,'" the most up-voted comment reads, "then the 9/11 attack in New York City would be a 'regrettable traffic accident.'" (The United Nations Security Council released a statement late Sunday condemning "in the strongest terms the terrorist attack.") 

Some of the fallout from the embassy's statement stems from an unfortunate translation. "Senseless violence," a common diplomatic phrase the Obama administration has also used to describe the 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, which killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, read as "meaningless violence" in Chinese. Many Chinese web users, likely already attuned for signs of disrespect, took that to mean the U.S. sympathized with the assailants. The violence did not serve its supposed purpose, the message seemed to say, but the assailants' goals could be achieved by some other means.

Perceived bias from Western media has roiled Chinese public opinion before. In the spring of 2008, Western media drew widespread criticism in China over coverage of ethnic clashes in Tibet and Xinjiang that many Chinese believed underplayed violence perpetrated by ethnic minorities. In the run-up to the August 2008 Beijing Olympics, many Chinese seethed against Western coverage of the Olympic torch relay, which often focused on the disruptions of the relay by human rights activists. In early 2008, some young Chinese Internet users set up a website called Anti-CNN to call out what they believed was biased reporting on China and, according to China's foreign ministry, to reflect grassroots "condemnation" of some Western media's "distorted and exaggerated" views.

These developments are troubling for U.S. - China relations, but not entirely surprising. In a digital age, it's relatively easy for wired citizens of one country to peer into the media environment of another. But old-fashioned cultural, political, and linguistic barriers remain. Even -- perhaps especially -- at times of tragedy, the combination often spurs more pique than understanding.

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