During the Olympic torch relay in France, a wheelchair-bound Chinese participant was attacked by pro-Tibet protesters. To add insult to injury, France has granted honorary citizenship to the Dalai Lama, who is the head of the Tibetan Buddhists, who have been agitating against the Chinese Government. These events have apparently not gone down well with both, the Chinese public and government.
In a bid to retaliate, some Chinese citizens demonstrated against and decided to boycott the French hypermarket chain Carrefour in China from May 8 to 24, the time during which the Olympics will be held in Beijing. Soon after that, it was found that searches carried out on Google.cn for the word “Carrefour” did not show any results even though Google.com has over 6 million results on the subject and they are available in Hong Kong, which is outside China’s national network.
Searches for Carrefour on Google China bring up a message that informs us that ‘this information cannot be accessed and one should return to google.cn for other information’. News and video searches for Carrefour have also been blanked out.
Censorship of domains is quite a common practice in China, but censorship of keywords is something relatively new. It is believed, that if this censorship has been carried out by Google under instructions from the Chinese government, it is more likely to have been ordered with a view to appease the agitating public rather than to hurt Carrefour per se.
While the Chinese government encourages a show of patriotism, it is not in their best interests to encourage huge hordes of angry protesters, as this may eventually harm their own set up – they intend to use the Olympics to project an image of tolerance and non-dictatorialism to the world.
In the past Google has often cooperated with the Chinese government and agreed to impose a degree of self-censorship. For example, some satellite imagery is not available on Google Maps, and a number of domains relating to human rights organizations are missing from the search index. Anti-government sources have also been removed from Google News.
It is not absolutely certain, though, whether this ban is from Google or the Chinese government. It is quite possible that the Chinese have developed some system to block specific search queries, perhaps based on the specific URL returned for individual queries. At present, neither part has commented on the ban.