Western corporations have often behaved embarrassingly in China, sacrificing any principles to ingratiate themselves with the Communist Party authorities. Yahoo was the worst, handing over information about several email account holders so that they could be arrested – and then dissembling and defending its monstrous conduct.If Yahoo is the worst, consider Associated Press and many others:
- When AP writes about Taiwan, it uses a standard insert that says
China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949against any and all historical facts. See for example, Taiwan Was Never Part of China's Civil Wars: Part I and Taiwan Was Never Part of China's Civil Wars: Part II.
- Many companies list Taiwan on their web site as a province of China, even though People's Republic of China has not ruled Taiwan for one nano second.
Critics have accused President Obama of kowtowing to Chinese leaders, by failing to meet dissidents, toning down his criticisms and delaying a meeting with the Dalai Lama. On balance, I think that criticism is premature: Confrontation doesn’t help with China and can hurt, and so engagement becomes a fine line to navigate. The Obama visit wasn’t a ringing success, but neither was it a craven embarrassment.
For the latest craven kowtowing, we can look somewhere else: Microsoft and its new search engine, Bing.
Western corporations have often behaved embarrassingly in China, sacrificing any principles to ingratiate themselves with the Communist Party authorities. Yahoo was the worst, handing over information about several email account holders so that they could be arrested – and then dissembling and defending its monstrous conduct. Now Microsoft is sacrificing the integrity of Bing searches so as to cozy up to State Security in Beijing. In effect, it has chosen become part of the Communist Party’s propaganda apparatus.
If you search a term on Bing that is politically sensitive in China, in English the results are legitimate. Search “Tiananmen” and you’ll find out about the army firing on pro-democracy protesters in 1989. Search Dalai Lama, Falun Gong and you also get credible results. Conduct the search in complex Chinese characters (the kind used in Taiwan and Hong Kong) and on the whole you still get authentic results.
But conduct the search with the simplified characters used in mainland China, then you get sanitized pro-Communist results. This is especially true of image searches. Magic! No Tiananmen Square massacre. The Dalai Lama becomes an oppressor. Falun Gong believers are villains, not victims.
What’s most offensive is that this is true wherever in the world the search is conducted – including in my office in New York. If Microsoft felt it had to bow to Chinese censorship within China’s borders, based on the IP address, that might be defensible. But when Microsoft skews its worldwide searches to make Hu Jintao feel better, that’s a disgrace. It becomes simply a unit of the Central Committee Propaganda Department.
(This is an issue with Google as well, but to a much lesser extent. Google censors results on its search engine used within China, google.cn, but offers mostly uncensored results using simplified Chinese characters on its worldwide browser, google.com. However, some searches on google.com, such as images for Falun Gong, are also censored.)
When I originally wrote about this issue back in June, Microsoft protested. “From what you described, that’s not the way Bing is supposed to work,” wrote Kevin Kutz, a company spokesman. He said that Chinese speakers at Microsoft could not replicate my results and did not detect this kind of skewed result. I sent screen shots, and then Microsoft acknowledged the issue but said that it was simply a temporary mistake. “It’s a bug,” Kutz told me. Later, he added: “What’s important is it’s getting fixed.” Soon, he said, Bing searches would be the same for Tiananmen and other sensitive subjects, whatever the language.
Six months later, the censorship continues. And now all of a sudden, it’s company policy.
Microsoft’s current position, which insults my intelligence and yours, is that there was indeed a bug of some kind and that that is fixed – but that searches in simplified characters continue to produce pro-Communist results because of the algorithms used. Mr. Kutz now asserts that a search in any given language emphasizes results from within the country that uses that language. Thus if you search in the simplified characters used within China, then you get disproportionately Chinese propaganda. Thus, he says, the explanation lies in the search algorithms, rather than in Microsoft policy.
Huh? How come that wasn’t the explanation in June? And if that’s the case, then why is there a marked difference between text and image searches? And in any case, why should Bing use an algorithm that results in propaganda and skews results far more than Google? Why isn’t Wikipedia higher on the results with simplified characters?
Of course, it’s possible that Microsoft executives in Redmond, since they can’t read Chinese, are being misled by those executives focused on the China business. Yet my hunch is that Microsoft simply has decided at a top level that it will compromise what principles it must to ingratiate itself with China. This presumably isn’t at China’s specific request: it’s unlikely that Chinese authorities would be so detailed in their demands, and it doesn’t negotiate over minor points like this. But China has made it clear that it dislikes search engines that lead to results it considers seditious, and it can block them.
Microsoft apparently doesn’t want to pursue the Google solution of having separate sites – one that produces generally legitimate results (google.com) and another within China that blatantly censors (google.cn). Instead, Bing figured it would have one site and just censor all the results in simplified Chinese characters. It then compounded the problem by dissembling and disguising its policy. That’s craven and embarrassing, it betrays the integrity of Microsoft searches, and for me it’s a reason to boycott Bing.
UPDATE: Microsoft has posted a measured response: http://bit.ly/6CD49e . It notes that some Bing searches are not skewed even in simplified characters but acknowledges that image searches in particular are sanitized. It says that this is a bug that was identified today and that it will soon be fixed. That’s basically what I was told last June, and I’m very skeptical.
UPDATE 2: For those asking for specific terms, and specific search results, here are some examples by date.