Tea Leaf Nation

Mapped: Chinese Stereotypes of the Americas

Search engine queries suggest a mix of current events and well-worn tropes driving views of the continents.

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Should Canadians be worried about invasion by the United States? To whom do the Falkland Islands belong? And why is Colombia’s university in the United States? (Hint: It isn’t.) These are some of the issues that Chinese netizens would like to clarify about North and South America, at least as reflected in the auto-completed results of Baidu, China’s leading search engine.

Over the years, amateur social scientists have delighted in analyzing what Google’s auto-complete tells us about the state of Western civilization. Foreign Policy has added a twist on this formula to see how China’s Baidu reflects the collective consciousness of China’s more than 700 million Internet users, the world’s largest online population. Previous articles in the series have mapped Chinese stereotypes of Europe, the Middle East, and China itself. This time, FP explores how Chinese netizens view the peoples and nations of North, Central, and South America.

So what do Chinese web users want to know about the nations of the Western Hemisphere? Results for North America are below:

The United States’ own voluminous results suggest a mix of admiration, disapproval, and bewilderment, as reflected in questions like “Why is America the world’s most powerful nation?”, “Why did America attack Vietnam and Iraq?”, and “Why do Americans hate Anne Hathaway?”

As the suggested results for Canada indicate, many auto-completed questions ask about countries’ relations with the United States. They ask why Venezuela opposes the United States, and why in Mexico development always lags behind it. As citizens of a nation firm keen to assert its territorial sovereignty, some Chinese netizens also ask why Cuba doesn’t take back Guantanamo Bay, where a previously hostile United States has and continues to run a naval base within its borders (answer: it’s complicated). Finally, in an amusing mix-up, one suggested query asks why Colombia’s university is located in the U.S. — “Colombia” and “Columbia” both being rendered by the same set of Chinese characters:

Many Baidu users ask about countries’ relations with China. The result for Suriname asks why local people speak the Chinese dialect of Hakka; the South American country is home to a large Chinese community descended from immigrants of Hakka regions of southern China. Netizens ask why Paraguay and Panama have not established formal diplomatic relations with China – both are among the few remaining nations that recognize Taiwan instead. Hints of additional diplomatic turbulence appear in a question for Mexico that asks why, on November 7, 2014, the country suddenly nixed a high-speed rail contract signed with Chinese firms. Recent tensions are evident in a suggestion for Argentina asking why the South American nation “sank our fishing boat,” a reference to a March incident in which the country’s coast guard opened fire on and sank a Chinese vessel accused of illegally fishing in Argentinian waters.

Current events float in and out of search results. In Panama, nearly every suggested result is related to the Panama Papers — a massive leak of information from a Panama-based law firm about offshore holdings — with netizens asking why it is possible to evade taxes in the nation, as well as how it became a “tax-evasion paradise.” Reflecting the Chinese government’s own desire to curb discussion of the documents — which name a few Chinese politicians’ relatives, among other world leaders — another high-ranking result simply asks, “Why is Panama being censored?”

Chinese netizens have a lot of questions about sports. Every single suggested query for Jamaica has to do with the locals’ prowess at competitive running. Predictably, Chinese web users also ask why Brazilians like soccer and are so good at it, although they seem aware of the country’s defeat by Germany in the 2014 World Cup. Protests over the mounting costs of hosting the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics may have inspired Chinese questions of why Brazilians oppose the two events — a reaction that may seem unfamiliar to Chinese given how Beijing spared no expense when hosting its own Olympics in 2008, which many Chinese took as a source of national pride.

A disclaimer is in order. Baidu’s auto-complete function mirrors Google’s in that it depends on an opaque algorithm. This means that while frequency of searches plays a key role in determining lists of suggested queries, other variables like time and location of search matter as well, meaning results cannot necessarily be reproduced with consistency. And due to the structure of Chinese grammar, there often are multiple ways of expressing even simple queries. FP has limited itself to a standard question prompt of “Why is [Country Name]…” but even that has a couple of variations, as shown in the Brazil example below:

Brazil Baidu Autocomplete

Auto-complete suggestions are most numerous for large, rich countries, and grow fewer as countries get poorer and smaller. Baidu has no suggestions at all for most Central American nations, though writing prompts for the region as a whole occasionally produces suggested questions on the area’s climate and “lack of diplomatic relations” — an apparent reference to the fact that Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua all (like Panama) have ties with Taiwan rather than the mainland.

In a final look at Canada, a few ranking queries ask about the country’s immigration rules, as well as why the visa process is so slow. In final preparations for this article, FP discovered a new suggested question asking why “Canada doesn’t want rich Chinese people.” The query may be a puzzled reaction to the Canadian government’s cancelling of an investor visa program popular with wealthy Chinese; it may also have to do with popular suspicions that moneyed Chinese are responsible for driving up Vancouver housing prices. If so, Chinese netizens may inadvertently have stumbled upon Canadian fears of a different kind of invasion from a different superpower.

C.K. Hickey and Warner Brown/Foreign Policy/Do not reproduce without permission

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