Baidu vs Google: Searching inside and outside China's Great Firewall in 2019
From Notre Dame and Avengers: Endgame to 996 and The Wandering Earth, the most-searched keywords on Google and Baidu this year look very different
From Baby Yoda to the US-China trade war, everyone has their own favorite and least favorite moments of 2019. But if there’s one thing that unites us, it’s that we searched for these moments online.
Each year Google publishes a list of the 10 most-searched keywords of the year. Since Google is the world’s most prevalent search engine, it’s a useful proxy for what piqued the world’s interest over the last 12 months. But China doesn’t have access to Google. So home-grown Baidu, China’s dominant search engine, has its own list.
Here’s what people searched for on both sides of the Great Firewall in 2019.
The big events
“May you live in interesting times” goes the apocryphal curse said to originate in China (but probably doesn’t). And 2019 was certainly interesting for China, especially given the on-going anti-government protests in Hong Kong that are now in their seventh month.
However, thanks to the Great Firewall, the protests weren’t the most-searched term on Baidu. Instead, the top spot went to the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. (On Google, the most-searched term in the world was about cricket matches between India and South Africa, while in the US people were most interested in Disney+.)
Other trending events were sadly not as exuberant. The same month the Notre Dame fire became the most Googled search term in the world, China was fighting its own fire that ended even more tragically. The Sichuan forest fire left 30 dead, making it one of the most-searched events on Baidu.
Tech was as big as ever
The iPhone 11 is the only tech product that was Googled enough to make it a top 10 search globally. But it didn’t make the cut in China. Maybe it’s because Chinese netizens thought it was ugly.
But China did have an important moment of reckoning in the tech industry this year, which helped “996” become one of Baidu’s most-searched terms. The number refers to the long working hours that the tech industry is known for -- 9am to 9pm, six days a week. A protest against 996 culture started trending on GitHub, gaining traction across the country despite censorship efforts.
Mad about Avengers, crazy about Wandering Earth
Avengers: Endgame was a huge hit globally, making it the seventh most-searched term on Google. It was also enormously popular in China, where the movie got Weibo talking about “America’s perky butt” and left at least one person howling uncontrollably in the theater. Even so, it wasn’t one of the most-searched terms on Baidu. But the domestic sci-fi hit The Wandering Earth made the list. The film is based on a novella by Liu Cixin, better known for his popular novel The Three-Body Problem.
Game of Thrones and Joker also made it onto Google’s top 10. Game of Thrones was very popular in China, with people turning to piracy when Tencent didn’t air the show’s final episode. Joker also got people talking in China, with some drawing comparisons to the Hong Kong protests. Neither one was on Baidu’s list, though.
Instead, a patriotic film called My People, My Country made the list. It was a big hit in China, but less so with critics outside the country. One described it as a “jingoistic anthology of communist China’s biggest achievements.”
Sports fans have their day
China’s fallout with the NBA over a tweet in support of the Hong Kong protests didn’t end up among Baidu’s most-searched terms. However, China’s female volleyball team did, and it was an impressive feat. The team swept the competition in 11 matches during the FIVB Volleyball Women's World Cup in Osaka just before China’s 70th anniversary, sending fans into a frenzy.
Last year’s FIFA World Cup managed to unite China with the rest of the world by appearing among the top ten searches on both Baidu and Google. Things are different this year, with regional events like the Copa América football championship and the ICC Cricket World Cup dominating Google searches.
And the rest of the year goes to…
The world only Googled one name this year that made it to the top 10. This was US actor Cameron Boyce, known for his role in the Disney TV film Descendants, who passed away at the age of 20 from complications related to epilepsy.
And while Greta Thunberg and her climate change activism wasn’t a top search term on either side of the Great Firewall, “garbage sorting” made Baidu’s list. It’s not because the country suddenly found a passion for recycling, though. It’s because China’s efforts to introduce recycling resulted in some bizarre experiments like garbage bins with facial recognition.
Do trash cans dream of electric sheep? Probably not, but they are supposed to make sure everyone is sorting their garbage. Unfortunately, they wound up making the task so complex that it sparked quite a few memes. It’s also a part of a wider effort to put facial recognition cameras literally everywhere, which drew more scrutiny in the country this year.