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China’s new Tibetan language search engine censors results

August 29, 2016

Wall Street Journal, August 24, 2016 - China launched its first Tibetan-language search engine this week — one that bears a striking resemblance to a certain U.S. search engine blocked locally, but with considerably more limited results.

According to Chinese state media, the name of the search engine,, means “master” or “teacher” in Tibetan, and the site is intended to help give Tibetan-language speakers access to more online content in China.

Its logo — lettered in a band of yellow, blue, green and red — is similar to that of Google, which is blocked in China. That, however, is where the parallels seem to end.

A quick image search for the Dalai Lama, for example, requires sifting through pages of results before locating any of the man that Chinese authorities have previously dubbed a “jackal in Buddhist monk’s robes.” Instead, users are offered photos of various Tibetan artifacts and images of official press briefings, as well as an image of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy adorned with the words, “Tibet is a part of China.”

Users seeking text results, meanwhile, are routed to an array of government-backed sites, including, which is bannered with slogans such as, “To manage our country, we need to first manage our borders. In order to manage our borders, we should first stabilize Tibet” and “Without the Communist Party, there would be no socialist New Tibet.”

Beijing views the Dalai Lama, who fled to India following a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, as an “anti-China separatist.” The flow of information in and out of Tibetan parts of China, which cover broad swathes of the country’s west as well as Tibet proper, is closely controlled by the government, which remains on high alert against local unrest. According to a tally by the nonprofit International Campaign for Tibet, 145 Tibetans have self-immolated since 2009 in protest of Chinese rule.

Françoise Robin, a Tibetan studies professor at the Paris-based National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations, ran a series of side-by-side comparisons with Google that turned up markedly different results. A Tibetan-language search for “Tibetan independence” in Google, for example, had around 730 results, while turned up nothing. Likewise, a search for “Dharamsala” — the seat of Tibet’s self-proclaimed government in exile — resulted in only 17 results on, mostly regarding official missions there.

“I think they realize most Tibetans now are bypassing the Great Firewall [through virtual private networks]” and turning to sources like Google and Wikipedia, says Ms. Robin. “I think authorities realize they have to compete.”

Google declined to comment.

The search engine was developed by the Qinghai Province Hainan Prefectural Tibetan Information Technology Research Center and developed over the course of more than three years for a cost of $8.7 million, state media reported.

Tibetan scholar Luorong Zhandui, a professor at Sichuan University’s western China development studies institute, said that previously for Chinese academics, the inability to search in Tibetan was a serious hindrance. “I have a grad student who had to go to Bhutan last year to do his literature review,” he said. “But if in the future, that material is put online and can be searched for, it will be much easier.”

China has repeatedly said it doesn’t want to stifle Tibetan culture or language, and in a recently released white paper offered an extensive catalog of Tibetan-language media currently available, including 11 Tibetan-language newspapers and 21 hours and 15 minutes of Tibetan-language news broadcast per day.

Activists, however, point to arbitrary detentions in the region, restrictions on speech and freedom of movement, as well as jail sentences such as the three-years handed to Tibetan blogger Druklo earlier this year, who was charged with inciting separatism. Chinese authorities also periodically impose Internet shutdowns on Tibetan areas, particularly during politically sensitive periods, such as the anniversary of 2008 riots in Lhasa.

Additionally, according to past U.S. State Department country reports on human rights, Chinese security agencies responsible for monitoring the country’s Internet often lack the language skills to monitor Tibetan-language content, leading to “indiscriminate censorship” of Tibetan-language blogs and websites.

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