China’s most important annual political event, the Two Sessions, concluded March 15 (see our March 15 Tip Sheet), and search giant Baidu is exploring the meetings through the lens of big data.
In a recent report, Baidu looks at keywords used by China’s political leadership during the Two Sessions, and cross-references them with Baidu searches for those terms over the same time period, ranking them by search popularity. The higher the rank, the more searches were performed.
The 2019 winner? “5G”, which was searched 162,332 times during the meetings.
The report also compares data across four previous years, beginning in 2014, providing a snapshot of hot-button topics du jour. Some of these keywords, like the “Three Stricts and Three Honests“, a 2014 initiative “aimed at improving the ethical conduct of Party officials”, have fallen off the rankings. Meanwhile several tech-related keywords like “5G” and “artificial intelligence,” have risen into the public consciousness over the last couple of years.
|1||Three Stricts and Three Honests||13th Five-year Plan||Blockchain||5G|
|2||Travel||Supply-side Structural Reform||Belt and Road||Mobile number portability|
|3||Open deposit interest rate||Internet||Amending the constitution||Belt and Road|
|4||The Chinese dream||Social insurance||Artificial intelligence||Big data|
|5||Socialist core values||Belt and Road||Reform and opening up||Artificial intelligence|
|6||Internet finance||Oil prices||Greater Bay Area||Three Critical Battles|
|7||People’s livelihood||Social security||Internet finance||Greater Bay Area|
|8||Agriculture||New energy vehicles||Fuxing high-speed train||Blockchain|
|9||New energy vehicles||Virtual reality||Supply-side structural reform||Property tax|
|10||Government car use reform||Left-behind children||Food safety||The Yangtze River Delta Integration Plan|
|11||Free trade zone||Food safety||Sharing economy||Preschool|
|12||Environmental protection||Medical insurance||Rural revitalization||Rural revitalization|
|13||Pension system unification||SOE reform||Comprehensive strict Party governance||Foreign investment law|
|14||Family planning||Rural ecommerce||Industrial internet||Targeted poverty alleviation|
|15||Combating corruption||Environmental protection||Poverty alleviation||Food safety|
|16||The Three Public Expenditures||Sharing economy||State institutional reform||Individual income tax threshold|
|17||New urbanization||Rule of law||Production safety||Tax and fee cuts|
|18||New energy||Military reform||Environmental protection||Internet +|
|19||SOE reform||Chinese stocks||Rule of law||Poverty alleviation|
|20||Counter-terrorism||Mass entrepreneurship||Sci-tech innovation||Small and micro-enterprises|
Why it matters
When the ballot box is unavailable as a platform for political expression, it can be difficult to get a read on which issues genuinely capture the public imagination. Big search data can offer one of the few unfiltered glimpses into which agenda items are perking up the public ear.
That said, “unfiltered” is a bit of a loaded term. For one thing, the numbers that Baidu is tossing out in this particular paper should be taken with a grain of salt. The report provides very little background on research methodology, and search term datasets are rarely this clean. Plus, the keyword rankings are in rather convenient alignment with what China’s political leadership would probably like the keyword rankings to be.
For another thing, we might suppose that the more frequently a keyword is repeated by top government officials, the more often it would be searched. So you’d need to compare the number of times a keyword appeared in political speeches against how many searches were performed in order to determine where public interest may be leading the political process, and vice versa.
But that doesn’t mean these Baidu metrics are useless. Anomalies still stand out. For example, “blockchain, ” which was the #1 most searched term in 2018, received three to four times the number of searches than the top-searched keywords in other years:
|Year||Keyword||In Chinese||Search Index|
|2014||Three Stricts and Three Honests||三严三实||346,272|
|2016||13th Five-Year Plan||十三五规划||283,242|
The numbers also give us a little peek into the climate of public engagement. Search numbers in general dipped this year, with the top-ranked search garnering only 162,332 in 2019, down from 1,112,040 in 2018. That’s almost certainly because the 2018 Two Sessions was a blockbuster that announced a sweeping government restructuring and the removal of term limits on the presidency (see Trivium’s March 12, 2018, Tip Sheet). By contrast, 2019’s meetings were a snoozefest.
Ultimately, the bigger question isn’t about the numbers themselves, but who owns and interprets them. If Baidu is the gatekeeper of public opinion data, what is the company doing with it?
- Huanqiu Tech: 《百度两会指数报告》发布：5G排热门话题第一位