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Why China's leaders fear the teletubbies

By Willis Sparks

A few days ago, Google introduced a tool that warns its users inside China about the hundreds of sensitive words and phrases that can produce an error message or even freeze the site, at least for a moment. China Digital Times (CDT) has since compiled a list of the most interesting (sometimes surprising) search terms. Taken together, they offer a glimpse of the wide range of things that China's Internet monitors don't want Chinese citizens reading and talking about. Translations are provided by CDT.

All the terms you see below in bold are apparently considered sensitive subjects.

Why are Chinese authorities worried about truth, benevolence, and forbearance? Because these words are associated with the outlawed spiritual movement Falun Gong. Watch out for the phrase snow lion; it's a reference to the flag of Tibet. Not surprisingly, searches for Taiwan Political Talk, Xinjiang + independence, and the Tibetan government-in-exile produce similar reactions. References to dissidents like Chen Guangcheng and Ai Weiwei can get you bounced. So can entering the words Liu Xiaobo or the Nobel Peace Prize he won in 2010. In fact, you might want to avoid the word dissident.

Nor do China's Internet monitors want citizens thinking about Chinese people eating babies or baby soup. That goes double for pornography, Playboy, and boobs.

Other words and phrases are dangerously suggestive for different reasons. The expression blood house, which refers to forced evictions, is a problem. Perhaps that's because it can encourage curiosity about assembly, a student strike and a people's movement. As these kinds of events take on a life of their own, it can lead young people to explore the so-called three leaves -- leave the Party, leave the Youth League, leave the Young Pioneers -- the 21st century Chinese equivalent of turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. It can also lead students into the public square, trigger a rebellion, a coup d'état or even a revolution. These kinds of things can provoke martial law.

It has happened before, though you won't learn much about that simply by searching for Tiananmen, tankman, block tank, or by entering 89 + student movement, Beijing + something happened, or what happened to Beijing. Lately, these sorts of spontaneous insurrections have been popping up in places like Egypt and Tunisia, stoking fears in Beijing of Jasmine + revolution, a Beijing spring or a China spring.

Insurrections aside, mere political embarrassments ring alarms, as well. Searches for Governor Bo Xilai or Chongqing, the province he governed before scandal charges brought him down, make the list -- as does Heywood, the family name of the British businessman his wife is suspected of having murdered. Add Chen Jian, victim of an earthquake who gave a live interview before dying beneath the wreckage and Zengcheng, a city in Guangzhou with the misfortune to have hosted a riot among migrant workers last summer.

Then there is Twitter and Facebook. Expect problems if you hunt for Wikileaks + China. China Digital Times is on the list along with traditional foreign troublemakers like Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. Expect glitches if you investigate the country's great firewall, the web brigade of Internet censors who help hold it in place, and freegate, dynapass or ultrasurf, tools for those who want to climb over the wall.

It's a bit more surprising that searches for Mao, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin raise red flags. Even the names of today's leaders (Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao) and tomorrow's (Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang) can create a disruption. Same for searches of the nine elders who operate behind the scenes in the Politburo Standing Committee. Simply entering Chinese Communist Party can create a problem, to say nothing of its less flattering nicknames the Common Disabled Party, Common Tragic Party, or the more colorful red bandits.

It's clear that Chinese authorities don't want citizens reading Mein Kampf. It's less clear why they appear to frown on the Coen Brother's film Burn After Reading. It's easier to understand sensitivity about the phrase best actor when you learn that's it a derisive nickname for Premier Wen Jiabao. But one mustn't get too curious about another of his popular nicknames: teletubbies.

Taken together, these and hundreds more words and phrases demonstrate just how hard it is to "manage" communications in a country of 1.4 billion people, more than half of whom have already found their way online.

Unfortunately for all concerned, this list of words and phrases is only getting longer.

Willis Sparks is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Global Macro practice.

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