Google is back in China but don’t try asking any difficult questions

The Guardian (England), Sep. 14, 2002
John Gittings in Shanghai

China’s web censors have lifted their ban on access to the popular international Google search engine – but they have ways of making sure no one asks the wrong question.

A search for Australian prime minister John Howard yesterday netted 200,000 internet pages; his Japanese counterpart Junichiro Koizumi scored 40,000. Yet when the magic name of Chinese president Jiang Zemin was entered, Google consistently replied that the information “is currently unavailable”.

The BBC’s internet site is subject to similar restrictions. China’s web servers allow access to the BBC homepage, but after that the going gets tough.

A click on “BBC News” produces a blank and even the weather in England and Scotland is banned.

However, in a bizarre exception to the rule, it was possible yesterday to get through to the BBC’s Neighbours website. Chinese surfers had no difficulty in learning that Karl has lashed out at Drew, and that Penny is using the bridal fair to lure customers into the coffee shop.

It appears that there may be some soap opera fans among the Chinese censors: EastEnders was available too, although access was more patchy.

The ban on Google and on Altavista, another California-based search engine, was imposed by Beijing at the beginning of the month.

Some observers believe that the aim is to prevent web-users from picking up sensitive items about Chinese politics ahead of a crucial Communist party congress in November.

Another theory is that the security apparatus is trying to build a bigger empire for itself, regardless of the effect on China’s image.

The sophisticated technology needed suggests the existence of a powerful agency with a large budget at its disposal.

“With 45 million users on line it is a big operation,” says Duncan Clark, head of the Beijing-based BDA China Ltd technology consultancy.

“They are using a rather sinister package now to filter out what they don’t like.”

Obvious no-go areas include and another one where the instructions are entirely in Finnish.

Chinese web portals are only allowed to operate if they agree to avoid sensitive topics and do not carry news from foreign sources.

Earlier this week the censors temporarily linked the Google web address to several Chinese search engines.

The Chinese technology appears to be capable of learning as it goes. An initial search for “ Vacation? Short break? Day trip? Get Skip-the-line tickets at GetYourGuide.


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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday September 15, 2002.
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