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Tracking China’s stereotypes online

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SHANGHAI — Why is the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang "so chaotic?" 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 on Baidu, the country’s top search engine, which says it processes about 5 billion queries each day.

In the West, amateur sociologists use Google’s voluminous search history to finish half-written questions about different regions. They then plot the stereotypes onto maps such as one of the United States, which The Atlantic called "The U.S. According to Autocomplete." 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 Taiwan, what some there would call a renegade province, pictured here 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. 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.

Some wonder why Xinjiang’s Turkic Uighur minorities look like foreigners, and why they hate the Han Chinese, who make up roughly 92 per cent of China’s total population but less than 50 percent in Xinjiang. Meanwhile, Tibet — also home to simmering discontent with Chinese rule — produces no auto-completed results at all. The same is true for its neighbour Qinghai, which sits on the Tibetan plateau and has a large ethnic Tibetan population.

Netizens associate several northern regions with varying degrees of violence. Liaoning, 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 the tiny region of 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," while the moderately wealthy Fujian is seen 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. 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 that province’s roughly 100 million residents 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, many of whom come to seek their fortunes in the coastal metropolis.


Tea Leaf Nation is Foreign Policy’s blog about news and major trends in China.


— Foreign Policy

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