Searching the Web Behind the Great Firewall of China

As well-known tech firms face criticism from Congress, Robert Siegel and China correspondent Anthony Kuhn in Beijing compare results from search engines in the United States and China. A search using Google, Google China and Yahoo shows how different the Web search experience is for a user in China.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

How different is searching the web in China from searching it here? Well, we've asked our man in Beijing, Anthony Kuhn, to join me in a little exercise. We both have our computers handy, and we're going to search some of the same terms on different sides of what they sometimes call the great firewall of China. You with me, Anthony?

ANTHONY KUHN: I'm all ready.

SIEGEL: Well, I'm open to Google.com.

KUHN: Yep.

SIEGEL: Let's both put in Falun Gong and see what comes up.

KUHN: Ready, what are you showing?

SIEGEL: Well, I have today's news, Falun Gong protest exclusion from parade, in the Miami Herald. That's from February 12, actually. And then Falun Dafa, that's the falundafa.org web site, Falun Dafa and Falun Gong information center. How about you?

KUHN: Yeah, same thing I've got. I suspect that's where the similarities will end and that's as far as I will get with these Falun Gong websites.

SIEGEL: You mean if you were to click through on one of these, say falundafa.org, you're blocked on that end, you figure.

KUHN: I'm blocked, and now it says the operation timed out when attempting to contact www.falundafa.org.

SIEGEL: Now, there also is a website which isn't that useful to me. It's Google.cn, Google China.

KUHN: That's right.

SIEGEL: Which is in Chinese. So I guess I can search this either with Chinese characters if I knew how to do that or in English?

KUHN: You can do it in Chinese or in English.

SIEGEL: Well, actually you can do it in Chinese or in English, I can only do it in English because I don't know Chinese.

KUHN: Right.

SIEGEL: Let's try Falun Gong again, on Google.cn. And here, I see a website of the Sweden Embassy, fmprc.gov.cn, outlawing Falun Gong cult. And Government Official on Campaign Against Falun Gong.

Well these are all about Falun Gong, but they all seem to be, well here's the China Internet Information Center.

KUHN: Yes, these are all Chinese government websites, critical of Falun Gong.

SIEGEL: Now, what if you had entered Falun Gong in Chinese in the Google.cn search engine?

KUHN: Let me give that a try here. Okay, now I've done the search in Chinese, and it's come up with the People's Daily website. And it talks about Falun Gong spreading lies and we also have China Essential Television on that topic, all critical of Falun Gong.

SIEGEL: Now let's not be partial to Google here, let's try Yahoo.com. I'll search Falun Gong on Yahoo.com and I'll see what I get here.

Well I get a news results again for Falun Gong, Falun Gong Protestors Exclusion from Parade, and then there's the Wikipedia entry also, and Falan Dafa's own website. So it's very similar to what I saw on Google.com.

And, do you see the same stuff?

KUHN: No, I don't get that far. I type in Falun Gong at Yahoo.com and a little pop-up comes up saying, Alert, the document contains no data.

SIEGEL: You don't even get the appearance of some information being turned up by the search?

KUHN: That's right.

SIEGEL: Now, without going into much detail, I assume that people who are very clever with computers can figure some way around this in China?

KUHN: Yes. The bottom line is that people who really want to see this stuff will find a way to do it. There're little software programs you can download from the web that will get you around these blocks, so yes, there are always ways to get around it. But of course these cyber cops are very resourceful as well, and there are ways for them to stop these attempts too.

SIEGEL: Do you get the feeling that it's just foreigners like yourself who are trying to use the internet who feel thwarted in this? Or do the Chinese talk about it? Have you ever heard Chinese civilians remark on what they can't find on the internet?

KUHN: Well, I'll tell you, my expertise in circumventing the bands has come from my Chinese friends. They're the ones who point out these bits of software that you can use to end-run the firewall. But I think the majority of people are pretty much content to see Chinese state media reports on the news and they don't necessarily need to see stuff.

But, you know, one thing is very clear, and that is that the government is more cautious and concerned about them seeing Chinese language media than they are English language media. And that's why things like NPR and the Washington Post and the New York Times are not blocked, whereas Hong Kong media in Chinese are blocked. So there is a difference in what language is used and what audience its directed at.

SIEGEL: Well Anthony, thank you very much for that exercise in comparative surfing.

KUHN: Thank you. That was fun.

SIEGEL: That was NPR's Anthony Kuhn speaking to us from Beijing.

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