Why does the western Chinese region of Xinjiang have “so many terrorists”? Why are many from the southern metropolis of Shanghai unfit to lead? And do people from central Henan Province really steal manhole covers? These are just some of the questions — ranging from the provocative, to the offensive, to the downright ridiculous — that Chinese people ask about themselves and each other. Or at least, those are the questions they ask Baidu, the country’s top search engine.
China thus far has been spared the harsh, dispassionate truth of search engine auto-complete, which in the West has let amateur sociologists use Google’s voluminous search history to finish half-written questions about different regions. They then plot the unmasked stereotypes onto maps such as this one of the United States, which was produced by Twitter account @amazing_maps and made famous after The Atlantic and other news sitespublished it on Jan. 27.
China, with its long history of regional stereotyping, is ripe for similar treatment. After all, it is home to 22 provinces, five autonomous regions, four municipalities, as well as what most there would call a renegade province, pictured above because of its prevalence on Baidu. Held together by a common history and culture (and occasionally force), the regions are divided by real and perceived differences in wealth, environment, stability, ethnicity, and personality — not to mention variations in that history and culture. Chinese society has deep schisms, one of which came into devastating relief on March 1, when a terror attack on a Kunming train station resulted in 33 deaths and 143 injuries. Chinese authorities have attributed the attacks to separatists from Xinjiang.
Studying China’s collective online subconscious via auto-complete requires flexibility. There is more than one way to ask “Why is …” in written Chinese. Results change over time, so readers may not be able to replicate results with fealty. But even allowing for these caveats, online queries about China’s regions are revealing, and they have a particularly sharp edge where they concern peripheral regions whose restive local populations sustain independence movements of varying intensity. Below is a list of common questions netizens pose about Xinjiang, whose ethnic Uighur Muslim minority lives alongside Han Chinese in a state of tension that frequently erupts into violence:
Others also wonder aloud why Xinjiang’s Turkic Uighur minorities look like foreigners, why they hate the majority Han Chinese, and why they are given affirmative action-style privileges as well as the right to carry knives. Meanwhile, Tibet – also home to simmeringdiscontent with Chinese rule – produces no auto-completed results at all. The same is true for its neighbor Qinghai, which sits on the Tibetan plateau and has a large ethnic Tibetan population. Interestingly, though, deleting the leading “why” from queries about Tibet produces many auto-completed results, mostly about travel tips and historical television dramas set in the region.
Netizens associate several northern regions with varying degrees of violenceLiaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang — collectively called the Northeast — are famous for their Siberian winters as well as their beautiful women, but the apparently pugnacious locals are also known for starting fights. Inner Mongolia calls to mind the brutal December 2013 hazing of newly recruited firefighters, and Ningxia’s sole result concerns the grisly murder of a family of seven following a marital spat in October 2013.
One of the starkest patterns involves queries into the omnipresent divide between China’s rich coastal provinces and poor inland ones. Netizens appear envious of wealthy Jiangsu and Zhejiang, asking why they are so developed and rich. China’s wealthiest province, Guangdong, is curiously considered “chaotic” in addition to “developed.” Only Fujian stands out as a “poor” coastal underperformer.
One might expect Beijing and Shanghai to impress for their comparative wealth and modernity, but the general gloom of netizen queries hints at disappointed expectations. Those researching Shanghai seem particularly interested in the city’s lack of public heating, a service provided throughout northern China but denied elsewhere, even the glamorous – yet shivering – commercial capital. Meanwhile, searches for “smog” crowd the list of results for Beijing, not surprising given the city’s frequent bouts with choking pollution.
Seven inland regions are associated with terms like “poor”, “backward,” and “undeveloped,” with none coming off worse than Henan.Perhaps it’s because of Henan people’s supposed penchant for stealing manhole covers, however inaccurate or distorted that picture may be:
A case can be made that the dismal repute of Henan and other poor inland regions derives from modern China’s society of mass migration, which puts people of vastly unequal regions side-by-side in big cities and creates conditions for new stereotypes to form and old ones to spread. Many migrants are second-class citizens in all but name, scorned by local residents, consigned to working menial jobs, and often associated with rising crime and other social ills. The dislike can be mutual – several queries about Shanghai ask why the “exclusive” natives look down on outsiders. One common question asks simply why Shanghai people hate Anhui people, a reference to China’s leading exporter of migrants, many of whom come to seek their fortunes in the coastal metropolis.
Not all queries are so severe. Many revolve around physical appearance; netizens ask why Shandong people are so tall and why Sichuanese are short and have good skin. The head-scratching top result for Hubei concerns “nine-headed birds” — not a reference to local fauna, but an ancient mythical creature that has since become a sometimes derogatory nicknamefor allegedly crafty locals. Users also ask why the people of Shanxi love vinegar, and why those in Sichuan and Hunan eat chili peppers. The adventurous, simian-craving dining habits of Guangdong attract particular attention. Most regions also feature searches related to local history: in fact all of Shaanxi Province’s results revolve around nicknames from its time as the cradle of Chinese civilization.
Clicking any of the auto-completed questions usually leads to links for online message boards where users debate Shanghainese leadership skills and other stereotypes. For outsiders looking to understand how China views itself, however, Baidu’s auto-completed questions are at least as illuminating as its answers.