Tea Leaf Nation
What China Searched for in 2014
Haze, tiger fighting, and the IP address 184.108.40.206 -- here's what captivated the world's most populous nation.
A person’s search history can be a telling trail, a map to an individual’s inner life and their real-world activities. So too with a nation’s search history. As some have said, you are what you search. For China this year, that means a country with its attention fixed on reform, pollution, and celebrity infidelity. This can be gleaned from studying Baidu’s popular online encyclopedia platform, Baike. It’s been called “China’s censored answer to Wikipedia,” and there’s no doubt that its content is tailored to Chinese tastes and sensitivities that include the wishes of the country’s government. But with 10 million articles and 5 million users, Baike is also an undisputably powerful online resource and useful barometer of Chinese interests. This year’s top ten Baidu Baike searches gives a glimpse at what ordinary Chinese were fixated on over the past 12 months, from smog to scandal to fighting tigers. Here is a rundown, with explanations from Foreign Policy:
1. “Inaugural year of reform” (改革元年) This refers to the government’s first year of implementing the new reform plan hammered out by President Xi Jinping shortly after he took the reins as China’s leader in November 2012. His cabinet’s road map for reform debuted November 2013 with the ambitious (if dismally-titled) “Decision on Several Major Questions About Deepening Reform.” (An excellent explainer of the 60-point opus can be found here.) The term’s position at the top of Baidu Baike could be read in a variety of ways. It could be because Xi’s reform plan is so influential. State-run mouthpiece People’s Daily certainly seems to think so and has built a splashy info page with a riot of graphics in its honor and a list of all the international news media that have reported on the plan, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. It’s also possible that everyone is searching it because no one is sure yet what exactly it will signify.
2. “Peng Liyuan” (彭丽媛) Peng Liyuan is a former professional singer and China’s First Lady. In a departure from the behaviors of recent Chinese first ladies, Peng has not been a retiring flower. State media routinely covers her activities, and she is regularly seen at Xi’s side both at home and abroad. When U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama visited China with her mother and daughters in March, Peng hosted. (Surprisingly, there was no clear winner in what the Wall Street Journal called the “first lady fashion face off.”) On Dec. 1, in honor of World AIDS Day, Peng, also a UN Goodwill Ambassador, released her first song since her husband came to power. The accompanying video showed her hugging and holding hands with children infected with HIV, a powerful anti-discrimination public service message. No wonder she’s popular.
3. “Ebola virus” (埃博拉病毒) As everywhere else, China is deeply concerned about Ebola, and the third most searched term on Baidu Baike this year was “Ebola Virus.” Though China has yet to see an outbreak, it’s been on high alert. It’s also made headlines for its efforts helping fight the virus in Africa. And it’s developed an experimental vaccine.
4. “Divine tune” (神曲) The Chinese word is slang for a viral music hit. This year one of the biggest was a song called “Little Apple” that, like PSY’s “Gangnam Style,” got co-opted by the Chinese military for a bizarre recruitment video. Just because it’s viral doesn’t necessarily mean it’s catchy. Consider 2010’s “Uneasy,” the song that led to the coining of the phrase “divine tune.” Nobody could stop talking about it, but it’s likely few would want to hear this tune by Chinese songstress Gong Linna more than once.
5. “Fighting Tigers” (打老虎) Baidu Baike explains that it refers to a story in the classic Chinese novel, The Water Margin, about a heavy drinker who bravely (foolishly) killed a tiger with his bare hands. But everyone knows that in contemporary China, the phrase really refers to the government’s unrelenting anti-corruption campaign, which is aimed at stamping out graft perpetrated both by tigers (high level officials) and flies (low level cadres). The party is also going after foxes, or officials who have fled the country. Adding to the animal metaphors, when an official is snared, he or she is said to have “fallen off the horse.”
6. “The missing Malaysian airliner” (马航失踪事件) People in China were and remain understandably obsessed with the fate of the Malaysian Airlines flight that went missing. Of the 227 passengers onboard, 153 were Chinese, and the flight was bound for Beijing when it disappeared. Malaysia’s early bungling of the search and investigation infuriated families of the missing Chinese nationals as well as the government in Beijing.
7. “Haze” (霾) In 2014, China couldn’t stop talking about its “haze” — a polite term for pollution. Western media has been more unsparing; a Feb. 26, 2014 article on China’s noxious smog in Time was headlined “China’s Apocalyptic Hellscape.” With the help of smart phones and social media, ordinary Chinese have been documenting the problem and grousing when the government seemed able to clean it up for visiting dignitaries, but not for everybody at home.
8. “Ice bucket challenge” (冰桶挑战赛) The Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised funds to combat ALS, was a legitimate global phenomenon that also swept China, dumping buckets of icy water on celebrities including retired basketball celebrity Yao Ming and screen starlet Zhang Ziyi.
9. “220.127.116.11” Something actually broke China’s Internet early in 2014, and it wasn’t Kim Kardashian. For eight hours on Jan. 22, service to some 600 million Internet users in China was suddenly and mysteriously disrupted. The clues point cryptically to the IP address 18.104.22.168. According to the Washington Post, the address traces to Dynamic Internet Technology, an outfit in Wyoming led by an adherent of Falun Gong, a spiritual group banned in China. Apparently in an attempt to block the address, Chinese web masters managed to route most traffic to that site instead.
10. “Cherish what you have.” (且行且珍惜) Chinese starlet Ma Yili wrote online, “Being in love is easy, but marriage is hard; cherish what you have” on March 31, after paparazzi had outed her husband Wen Zhang as a philanderer. After media posted damning photos of Wen holding hands with his mistress, Wen was compelled to post a very public apology to his wife online via the Twitter-like social media site Weibo. The apology became the most viral post in Weibo history, shared 1.25 million times and garnering millions of comments. But it was Ma’s poetic response that remains the catchphrase of the scandal.
Alexa Olesen was a foreign correspondent for the Associate Press in Beijing for eight years and has been a reporter for Foreign Policy. She now works for ChinaSix, a New York-based consulting firm.