Note: A version of this article originally appeared on Foreign Policy. It is reproduced here with the editor’s permission.
What’s with the British habit of wearing wigs? And why are they so fond of talking about the weather? These are just some of the common queries that Chinese web users have about the United Kingdom, at least as reflected in autocomplete results on Baidu, whose 80 percent market share makes it China’s biggest search engine.
Search engine autocomplete works like this: when someone begins typing a question into a search engine, an algorithm scours its archives to summon a list of previously popular ways to finish the query. Those automatic suggestions often have the added benefit of piercing the cacophony of online discourse to uncover the profound and mundane curiosities which drive people to beseech the Internet for enlightenment. Foreign Policy has plotted the most common Chinese-language Baidu query for each European nation onto the map below, in addition to analyzing other frequent search results below. This provides a glimpse into how Chinese netizens view the peoples and countries of Europe – a continent whose industrialization once both humiliated China and inspired its admiration, and which has loomed large in the country’s imagination ever since:
The ghosts of the past haunt Chinese queries for many countries. Chinese netizens ask why France and Poland can’t beat Germany – though vague phrasing and the Chinese language’s lack of verb tenses admittedly mean these might just be soccer questions, which also appear frequently in search results about World War II. There is no ambiguity about Italy: netizens ask why that nation was not subjected to the same post-war criticism as Japan and Germany. Britain’s role in the Opium Wars, the successive 19th century conflicts which forced China to grant territorial concessions to European nations, also comes up. And for Germany, references to killing and hating Jews topped the search suggestions, though another top query, “Why do Germans still hate Hitler?” indicates a modicum of balance.
Quirks of European political divisions and territorial boundaries also arouse Chinese curiosity. There is considerable confusion about who does and does not belong to institutions like the European Union and Eurozone. The political status of British Isles is an object of intense interest to China’s online community, which asks about independence (or the lack thereof) for Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Netizens also ask why German-speaking Austria does not unite with Germany, and why Italy and Spain do not respectively annex the Vatican City and Portugal.
Attitudes towards China feature prominently in Europe-related search results. Albania’s only result relates to the breaking off of relations with China in the 1970s. Several of Turkey’s results have to do with its perceived opposition to China and support for “East Turkestan,” a separatist group China’s government often blames for violence in the restive western region of Xinjiang. The top suggested search for Poland asks why it hates China, with most results linking to an essay cataloging a range of sleights extending from the 1919 Paris Peace Conference to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. And as for France, a leading query asks why locals in the top European tourist destination for Chinese tourists so often cheat Chinese travelers.
A couple of caveats bear mentioning. Similar to Google, Baidu’s autocomplete function is powered by an opaque algorithm, and while frequency of searches plays a key role in propelling results to the top of the suggestion lists, other variables like time and location of search factor as well, meaning results cannot necessarily be reproduced with consistency. Also, Chinese grammar means there often are multiple ways of expressing even simple queries. See below for an example for Switzerland; notice the different arrangement of Chinese characters in the initial question stem.
Autocomplete suggestions are most numerous in large, rich countries, and grow fewer as countries get poorer and smaller. Baidu has no suggestions at all for most Balkan nations, suggesting limited Chinese interest in a region that weighs heavily on the minds of some Europeans. This makes also for a curious distinction with some Google-derived autocomplete maps, which show a morbid interest with the region’s relative poverty. It may be that the sheer number of small nations splits queries into batches too small for Baidu’s algorithm to return consistent suggestions.
So why do the people of Britain don hairpieces and savor meteorological chit-chat? As luck would have it, Baidu’s autocomplete suggestions for that country are so prolific as to suggest their own answers: maybe it’s because so many British are “bald” and are trying to “hide from talking about the Opium War.”