Baidu's suggested search feature is very revealing.
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What Baidu’s search autofill reveals about the soul of the average Chinese web surfer

“What do I do if I'm ugly?”, and other questions.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Bored at work? Type “why is” into Google, and up pops a list of the most common user questions beginning with that phrase, such as “why is the sky blue” and “why is my poop green”. Then try “what is”, “how do you”, “how to pronounce”, and so on, and before you know it you’ll be face deep in the greatest parlour game/time-suck of the early twenty-first century. After Google Suggest debuted in 2008, it quickly became a handy tool for armchair psychologists looking to analyse our collective psyche. Among its revelations: we cheat on the New York Times crossword, we don’t know how to pronounce “gif”, and we mainly use the internet to find song lyrics. Google Suggest tunnels into the far recesses of the soul, revealing humanity at its most innocent (“why am I me”), ugly (“I am extremely terrified of Chinese people”), and bizarre (“I like to tape my thumbs to my hands to see what it would be like to be a dinosaur”).

Baidu, the Chinese search engine, has a similar feature. Foreign Policy recently used it to develop a map of China by regional stereotype, while others have mined it to learn what Chinese think of foreigners from various nations. But that’s just a start. There’s a lot more Baidu can tell us about China’s search engine users, from their hopes and fears to their obsessions and consumer preferences. As I played around with the tool this week, a portrait of the average Baidu user started to emerge: a broke, sexually frustrated guy/girl who wants to become a teacher, buy a car, marry, and have a son (or, better yet, twins), if only he/she can get this damned wifi router to work.

Indeed, China has many problems, but the biggest headache plaguing Baidu users seems to be how to get wireless. Type in “怎么”, or “how”, and four of the top ten suggestions involve the setting up of routers and cracking of passwords. (For simplicity, the searches below are all translated from Mandarin.) Rivalling wifi for subject of greatest concern is pregnancy. “How do I make sure I have a son?” users ask, reflecting a common desire in China, especially under the government’s one-child policy. Women also want to know how to “get pregnant quickly” and have “dragon-phoenix twins”, or twins of opposite genders. Otherwise, users are most concerned with how to “buy stocks”, “apply eye-liner”, “download videos”, “reduce belly fat”, “repair a kidney”, and “catch pheasants”, slang for soliciting prostitutes.

Sex questions are popular – understandably so, given the relative dearth of sex education in China. (Plus, asking the internet is less awkward than asking your teacher or mom.) The top “why” question among Googlers may be “why is the sky blue”, but Baidu users have a different primary concern: “why is my semen yellow?” Runners up include “why do I ejaculate so quickly?” and “why don’t I have any semen?” They also pose questions they might be too shy to ask their partners, such as, “why do girls go to the bathroom after sex?” You may have noticed these are all dude questions. It’s hard to say whether that’s because Chinese men have a disproportionately large number of sexual hang-ups, or because Baidu users are disproportionately male, or because China itself is disproportionately male. Evidence points to the latter two explanations: if you type in “I’m looking for”, “a wife” makes the list of top suggestions, but “a husband” does not.

Physical appearance is another perennial source of anxiety. Men search for ways to “grow taller” and “cure baldness”, while women ask how to “make my skin white”, “make my legs thinner”, and “make my face thinner”. “Am I handsome?” is the most common search about users’ appearance, followed by “I’m ugly”, “I’m very ugly”, and “what do I do if I’m ugly?” Insult to injury, the search results page is populated with photos of beautiful celebrities.

Baidu also catalogs the hopes and dreams of its users. The search term “my dream is” reveals the most-sought profession to be teacher, followed by doctor, designer, police officer, scientist, painter, astronaut, and soldier, in that order. And whatever their job, Baidu-ers want the trappings of a middle class lifestyle. The most common phrase that starts with “I want to buy” is “I want to buy a car.” A close second: “I want to buy a car but I have no money, what do I do?” After that, users are most interested in purchasing a phone, a house, a pigeon, and a gun.

Baidu users appear to be hopeless media addicts. A big chunk of search suggestions turn out to be titles of songs, movies, and TV shows, many of which users can stream online. Type in “I am”, and the suggestion box fills with variations on the talent show title I Am a Singer. Type “who”, and you are directed to the dating show Who Can Be One in a Hundred?, the talk show Who’s Talking?, the video game Who’s the Mole?, the movie Unexpected Love (its Chinese title translates as Who Says We Can’t Love?), the movie Who Is the Real Hero?, and the novel Who Didn’t Have an Aimless Youth? Baidu also suggests that users might be looking for the recent ad campaign “Who Can Represent KFC?” According to a spokesman for Baidu, there is no commercial element in the suggested search terms.

Politically sensitive terms do appear to be manipulated. Enter the word “Tiananmen” and you’ll see a short list of suggestions: “Tiananmen Square”, “Tiananmen photos”, “Tiananmen flag raising times”, and “I Love Beijing’s Tiananmen”, the title of a song from 1970. The terms “1988” and “1990” yield searches related to the lunar calendars of those years, but if you want to know when Spring Festival began in 1989, you’re out of luck. Likewise, “六四,” or “6/4,” shorthand for the massacre of 4 June, 1989, produces no suggestions, while 六三 (“6/3”) and 六五 (“6/5”) reveal plenty. Chinese users appear to be turning to Google for answers to these sensitive questions instead. Type the Mandarin word for “why” into Google.com.hk, and the fourth most common search is “Why suppress Falun Gong?” Enter the word for “how” and suggestion number six is “How do I get over the Great Firewall?”

Baidu also tells us which phrases Chinese people want to say in other languages. If you type “How do you say in English,” you learn that the phrase most commonly searched for is 加油 or “add oil”, the Mandarin equivalent of “Go! Go!” Other terms that urgently require translation into English: “Shut up”, “wife”, “pollution”, “resume”, “brassiere”, and “milk powder”. The phrase that Chinese people most want to say in Japanese and Korean? “I love you”.

Some Baidu questions would only make sense to Chinese speakers. For example, a lot of users search for “why is there no northern melon?” In Chinese, pumpkin is “southern melon”, watermelon is “western melon”, and white gourd is “winter melon”, which is a homophone for “eastern melon”. There is, in fact, a “northern melon”, but it’s a lot less common than the others. Other searchers want to know “why is there no western capital?” for a similar reason, as Beijing is the “northern capital”, Nanjing is the “southern capital”, and Tokyo is the “eastern capital”.

But overall, Baidu users have a lot of the same questions and interests as Google users. The top suggestion on Google/Baidu for “I’m feeling”/”我感觉”is “I’m feeling blue”/“我感觉很难过.” Users of both search engines complain about their computers and demand to know what’s happening to their bodies. “Why does my hand sometimes tremble?” Baidu-ers ask, perhaps indicating one too many Baidu searches. In the end, most queries fall into the category of broad human experience. For example, what greater testament to our unity as a species than the fact that when you type “my balls”/“我的蛋” into Google/Baidu, the #1 suggestion is the same: “hurt”/“好疼”.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle