In the absence of voting, big search data tracks Chinese public opinion

Baidu looks at keywords used by China’s leadership during the Two Sessions, and cross-references them against search numbers.
China Market Research: China Voting Public Opinion Baidu Search data

The data

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.

Rank 2014 2016 2018 2019
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

China Market Research: China Voting Public Opinion Baidu Search data

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
2018 Blockchain 区块链 1,112,040
2019 5G 5G 162,332

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?


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