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Sly Google wields the knife in Chinese Internet censorship tussle

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Ng Han Guan/AP/File

(Read caption) In this March 2010 file photo, flowers are placed on the Google logo outside Google China headquarters in Beijing.

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This week the search engine giant Google kept a polite smile on its face as it stuck its shiv in up to the hilt, introducing a feature to its Chinese site that tells users exactly when the censors have blocked a search word for being too “sensitive.”

The Chinese government keeps its list of banned search terms secret; Google is now revealing them. But not once did Google Vice President Alan Eustace mention the word “censorship” in his blog introducing the new feature.

Instead he noted that users in China “are regularly getting error messages” when they search for “a particular subset of queries.” He mentioned the word “jiang” as a case in point – but did not explain why such a common surname that also means “river” should be a banned search term.

It’s because “jiang” is the surname of former president Jiang Zemin, about whom the censors don’t want Chinese citizens to find out much because most of what is written about him on the web concerns his allegedly poor health and his role in succession struggles within the ruling Communist party.

The problem for Google users in China, and Google, is that whenever a user searched for a banned word not only would the search yield only an error message, but the connection to Google would be lost for a minute or so, which is highly inconvenient.

No wonder that Google has only 16 percent of the Chinese search engine market, way behind local competitor Baidu, with 78 percent. Baidu self-censors, so its users have no problem searching “jiang.” Google has refused to self censor since 2010, when it withdrew from the mainland and based itself in Hong Kong.

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