Posted 5 hours ago by Elizabeth Coates
Chinese search giant Baidu entered the Brazilian market last week with the launch of a localized Portuguese search engine called Baidu Busca. It’s the second international language version of its website (a Japanese site went live in 2007), and new ones are planned for Egypt and Thailand.
With enthusiastic backing from the Chinese Communist Party, Baidu is one of several Chinese tech giants looking to branch out internationally and challenge the primacy of American companies.
Supporting the global expansion of tech companies is not merely an economic calculation for Chinese leaders (though they do have much to gain). More important are the political dividends and the opportunity to influence international public opinion. According to Wang Xiujun, deputy director of China’s State Internet Information Center, “the future of our party and country” depends on winning “the struggle for ideological penetration.” Chinese Internet companies friendly to the state are seen as key players in the global war of ideas.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the Portuguese version of Baidu produces heavily censored results on topics considered “sensitive” to the Chinese leadership.
Compare search results between Google’s Portuguese edition and Baidu’s. OnGoogle.br.com, a search for Tank Man (“el hombre del tanque”) turns up photos, documentary video and news articles about the lone rebel who stood in the way of approaching tanks outside of Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The same search on br.Baidu.com returns obscure blogs and a Youtube user page featuring videos of spandex-clad music ensembles. The top result is about Egypt—not Tiananmen Square. A corresponding image search generates photos of t-shirts. And where Google returns 2.8 million search results, Baidu produces just 50,000.
In some cases, Baidu search results appear to have been generated based on a highly selective white list comprising only Communist Party news outlets.
A Google search for “Falun Gong” generates images of meditation, links to Brazilian and international Falun Gong websites, and accounts of human rights abuses inflicted by the Chinese government.
Baidu Busca is in a different world entirely, returning a total of just 66 results (compared to 1.3 million for Google). Every single one links to the state-run People’s Daily newspaper, with headlines like “Irrefutable Evidence of Falun Gong’s Anti-Humanity,” and “Falun Gong, Spiritual Opium.” Some articles resemble blood libel, accusing Falun Gong practitioners of gruesome homicides, while others are devoted to denying reports of state-sanctioned torture and abuse in custody.
If Baidu succeeds in capturing the international search market, it will have a powerful platform to influence what we know and how we think about China. But if the company’s experience in Japan is any indication, that seems unlikely to happen. Since its 2007 launch Baidu Japan has lost money every year. The Japanese government warns that some of its programs spy on users, and it never came close to challenging Yahoo and Google.