Beijing has opened a new front on the internet in its more-than-decade-long campaign to shut down a performing arts company whose shows challenge the Chinese regime’s human rights record and cultural identity.
Google search results for the Shen Yun Performing Arts company are steering users toward Chinese regime propaganda. Among the top results are several articles that align with the regime’s talking points or are directly produced by the regime. Other search engines don’t produce these results.
Whether Google is actively seeking to target Shen Yun with the Chinese Communist Party’s viewpoint isn’t clear. The search engine itself may be being manipulated.
Art That Draws Regime’s Ire
The Chinese regime has opposed Shen Yun since the company’s inception for two reasons: the threat posed by a revival of China’s traditional culture, and the company’s artistic portrayal of the persecution of the spiritual practice Falun Gong.
Started in 2006 as a dance and music company in upstate New York, Shen Yun has a vision of reviving traditional Chinese culture and showcasing through arts the 5,000-year history of China.
Its lively performances, praised by critics for artistic mastery, have become a mainstay on stages from Lincoln Center in New York to the Palais des Congrès in Paris. While mostly covering historical and folk motifs, some of its dance pieces also portray religious persecution in today’s China. And that part has been a thorn in the side of the Chinese regime.
The regime has targeted Shen Yun with its extensive propaganda apparatus and, as the troupe recently noticed, some of that propaganda is featured prominently in Google products, including search results.
That’s puzzling to the company, since the internet abounds with news articles and videos featuring artists, art critics, and celebrities extolling Shen Yun. Yet, Google seems to favor a handful of articles and websites, including ones directly produced by the Chinese regime, that spread false claims about the company.
“No matter how many thousands of positive reviews [there are] … still, at the very top of the Google ranking are these negative articles,” Leeshai Lemish, an emcee with the company, told Epoch Times’ affiliate NTD.
For instance, when a user types “Shen Yun” in the Google search bar, one of the top suggested search terms is “shen yun cult.”
That association comes directly from the communist regime.
Shen Yun artists say on their website that they draw their values from Falun Gong, a meditation practice whose practitioners have been viciously persecuted by the communist regime in China for more than two decades.
Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is a meditative practice that includes a set of moral teachings based on the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. It was banned by the Chinese regime in 1999 because of its popularity; official estimates at the time put the number of practitioners at 70 million to 100 million.
Falun Gong is an especially difficult topic for the regime since it’s directly related to one of its most gruesome abuses—making money off killing religious minorities and selling their organs.
An expert tribunal in London concluded earlier this year that the regime has indeed been killing its own people and selling their organs for transplant “on a significant scale,” and that the primary victims have been people detained for practicing Falun Gong. Other victim groups include underground Christians (who refuse to accept the censored version of Christianity in the regime-sanctioned church) and members of the Muslim Uyghur minority.
Information about the persecution that has reached the public—in large part because of reporting by independent media, including The Epoch Times—has gone a long way in undoing Beijing’s efforts to portray itself as a modern, legitimate, and responsible world power.
The regime’s tactic has been to label Falun Gong a “cult.”
When the persecution of Falun Gong started, the regime blamed its adherents for every conceivable wrongdoing. If a murder happened, the state-controlled media would blame Falun Gong. If negative information about the regime found its way to the public, the media would blame Falun Gong for “spreading rumors.” Even the 1995 deadly sarin attack in a Tokyo subway committed by the Aum Shinrikyo cult was retroactively blamed on Falun Gong in the regime’s propaganda.
“Blame it on the Falun Gong,” musician Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses fame wrote in his 2008 song “Chinese Democracy”—an ironic jab at the regime’s smear campaign.
In 2001, the regime went as far as to stage an incident in which several people set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and blame it on Falun Gong. When an award-winning documentary exposed that the incident was staged—showing in the regime’s own footage that one of the victims was actually struck in the head with a blunt object by a man in a military jacket—the regime simply cut the incriminating parts from the footage and re-released the propaganda piece, Chinese political commentator Heng He noted in a 2009 Epoch Times op-ed.
To this day, Chinese tourists are sometimes stunned to see Falun Gong freely practiced in parks abroad, since domestic propaganda initially claimed that the practice was illegal worldwide. In perhaps the starkest contrast with the propaganda, hundreds of thousands have picked up the practice in neighboring Taiwan without producing any of the grotesque woes attributed to Falun Gong on the mainland.
The regime also has tried to infuse its propaganda into the Western press. Newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post have long included inserts that are officially marked as advertising but are, in fact, propaganda produced by the regime.
Sometimes, the regime even manages to have Western media include the propaganda in their reporting. In those cases, it’s usually unclear whether the regime has influenced the outlet directly, or the propaganda slipped in through editorial sloppiness.
Several such articles concerning Shen Yun, however, are featured prominently in Google search results, giving Beijing’s propaganda more exposure than the plethora of genuine responses to Shen Yun performances. Sometimes, especially when searching for Shen Yun-related terms in Chinese, the regime’s propaganda is placed even higher in the results than the company’s official pages.
A page smearing Shen Yun on the website of the Chinese Embassy in Washington tends to pop up among the top 15 search results on Google. But one would be hard-pressed to find the page using other search engines, such as Yahoo, Bing, and DuckDuckGo, short of diving much deeper into the results.
Party Versus Tradition
Another reason why Beijing rants against Shen Yun is the threat that the promotion of traditional culture poses to the regime.
From the communist regime’s beginning, it has sought to uproot China’s traditional culture. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, historical texts and monuments were burned and smashed, while scholars and religious leaders were humiliated, imprisoned, and killed.
Traditional beliefs have been replaced with what the Chinese sometimes call the “Party culture”—a mix of historical revisionism, dogmatic atheism, and materialism, and a tacitly approved unscrupulous pursuit of power and profit conditioned on obedience to the regime.
Even the traditional culture itself has been reinterpreted to serve the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) purpose. Loyalty, for instance, is one of the five cardinal virtues of Confucianism. Traditionally, it includes the concept of criticizing one’s superiors to help them correct their shortcomings. In Party culture, however, it means blind obedience to the Party.
Shen Yun, on the other hand, not only displays traditional culture, but openly stands up for its underlying principles and against their destruction and persecution. That, according to Chinese political commentator Zhang Tianliang, dissolves the regime’s ideological base.
“When the beliefs of traditional culture and moral values revive, the conscience of the people will also awaken. The disintegration of the Party culture is inevitable. When that happens, the CCP, an evil political system, will lose the environment on which it relies for survival,” he wrote in a 2008 Epoch Times op-ed.
After Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng saw a Shen Yun performance in 2013, he said: “Shen Yun has posed the greatest challenge to the CCP. Chinese have awakened to the beauty of their own traditional culture.
“The Chinese people see that what Shen Yun presents is their true culture and that what the CCP presents is wrong,” Wei said. “In this sense, Shen Yun is very important to the Chinese people.”
The propaganda in Google search results occurs within the context of the regime trying to sabotage Shen Yun’s performances, of which the company has identified many examples.
The most common tactic has been using local Chinese embassies to pressure venues not to allow Shen Yun to perform. Those efforts, however, have mostly failed. Shen Yun has been steadily growing in size and now has seven touring companies collectively performing in front of about 1 million people a year.
Another tactic has involved pressuring politicians to avoid attending the performances or issuing proclamations in support of Shen Yun. Yet that effort, it appears, has mostly backfired and, instead, generated buzz about Shen Yun in political circles. In some cases, politicians have exposed the pressure campaigns in the media, protesting China’s attempts to stifle freedom of expression overseas.
The Chinese regime also has been trying to directly put pressure on media. In 2008, a state-sponsored television station in the Czech Republic invited Shen Yun performers for an interview and showed on camera a letter from the local Chinese Embassy urging the station against becoming involved in Shen Yun’s performance in Prague that year.
One of the Czech TV hosts said at the time: “We’re not a Chinese television, not even a state television, so our advantage is, we can invite whoever we want. It’s perhaps a bit different in China.”
It isn’t clear whether Google has manipulated Shen Yun-related search results intentionally, or the results have been skewed inadvertently, or the Chinese regime has gamed the search engine.
The result, however, is the same. And it matters.
Controlling 90 percent of global internet searches, Google has a massive amount of power to influence its users. Research psychologist Robert Epstein has proven in experiments that one can sway people’s opinions simply by pushing certain search engine results up and down.
He’s also demonstrated that Google has employed its power in a way that has influenced millions of votes in recent U.S. elections.
“The methods that they’re using are invisible. They’re subliminal. They’re more powerful than most any effects I’ve ever seen in behavioral sciences, and I’ve been in behavioral sciences for almost 40 years,” he testified to a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on July 16.
Google didn’t respond to a request for comment, but its representatives have repeatedly told Congress that the company doesn’t manually alter search results. Yet the company acknowledges that its search algorithms partly work from data produced by manual reviews of individual websites.
Google employs so-called “raters,” whose job it is to determine “expertise, authoritativeness, trustworthiness” scores for websites. It’s up to the raters to do their own research, so if they make judgments on incomplete or false information, or if they introduce their own biases into the rating, the search algorithms may then produce skewed results.
In addition, multiple leaks, undercover recordings, and whistleblowers have demonstrated that Google also intentionally skews the algorithms, so the results reflect the worldview preferred by the company—calling it “machine learning fairness.”
Some of the leaked documents and undercover recordings indicate that the worldview pushed by Google is influenced by the quasi-Marxist intersectional theory. This information undercuts Google’s repeated claims that it creates and runs its products to be politically neutral.
In fact, Google’s corporate interests best align with contemporary leftist politics dominated by intersectionality, according to Michael Rectenwald, former liberal studies professor at New York University and author of “Google Archipelago: The Digital Gulag and the Simulation of Freedom.”
The ideology of digital giants such as Google and Facebook could best be described as “corporate leftism” and bears a resemblance to the ideology of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” practiced by the communist regime in China, Rectenwald says.
Still, Google doesn’t necessarily promote Chinese propaganda intentionally.
Google algorithms also respond to signals that can be manipulated.
The ranking of a web page can be boosted if other authoritative pages link to it, said Alexander Kehoe, a search engine optimization expert and co-founder of Caveni Digital Solutions, an SEO and digital marketing company.
The Chinese regime is in a position to take advantage of this feature to boost certain content in search results, he said.
“State actors … have the resources to make either fake [websites] or make so many other websites link to you that it appears that you’re authoritative, even if it’s artificial, as opposed to organic,” Kehoe told The Epoch Times.
Indeed, the Chinese regime runs a massive online influence operation. A 2017 study (pdf) published in the American Political Science Review said that the Chinese regime has hired as many as 2 million internet trolls, who post an estimated 488 million messages of misinformation or disinformation each year.
Most recently, the regime has used manufactured online campaigns to influence public perception of the protests in Hong Kong, an analysis by The Wall Street Journal shows. In 2018, it used a similar tactic to try to sway elections in Taiwan, according to a man claiming to be a defecting Chinese spy.
Lemish believes the Chinese regime is using its troll army to post on social media and elsewhere links to propaganda pages against Shen Yun to boost their ranking.
“It’s making us work a lot harder because just the normal way that people discover things these days [is] by Googling them and by hearing about them … on social media,” he said. “They’re really making a strong effort to not allow us to use those channels, and then create negative impressions on people to make it harder for us to sell tickets.”
The trolls are sometimes easy to spot because they use a style of broken English typical for some mainland Chinese in their online posts, he said.
Kehoe called the regime’s trolls “very blatant.”
“It’s almost like they’re toeing exactly the Party line from China. … No American would actually say something like this,” he said.
It’s clear that Google is at least aware of the regime’s efforts.
Earlier this year, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, which is owned by Google, suspended hundreds of accounts linked to a CCP information operation seeking to undermine the protest movement in Hong Kong.
With the 2020 U.S. presidential election approaching, foreign political influence operations are likely to remain a hot topic.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the year when Shen Yun Performing Arts was founded. It was founded in 2006. The Epoch Times regrets the error.