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.
Art That Draws Regime’s IreThe 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.”
Falun GongShen 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.
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.
Smear CampaignWhen 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.
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.
Party Versus TraditionAnother 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.
“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.
Documented CampaignThe 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.
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.
Google PowerIt 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.
BiasGoogle 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.
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.
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.
Influence OperationGoogle 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.
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.
With the 2020 U.S. presidential election approaching, foreign political influence operations are likely to remain a hot topic.