People on both sides of the “aisle” — which is starting to feel more like a chasm than an aisle, by the way — have, for different reasons, long suggested that Ai Weiwei’s mainstream appeal in China is limited. Moreover, some have suggested that Ai’s profile is too low for many people to care that he’s arrested.
But this morning, I noticed something quite shocking. The Chinese phrase “Chinese artist Ai Weiwei” was the 8th most-searched term on Baidu’s hot topics list. See the photo below, courtesy of @goldkorn who had the good sense to grab a screenshot before it was deleted.
Now, first it’s important to establish what the Baidu hot topics list actually is. It’s essentially a real time list of the hottest search terms with time-sensitive relevance. So, Ai Weiwei being at #8 on this list doesn’t mean he was the 8th most searched for thing on all of Baidu, it means he was the 8th most searched for thing on Baidu after the things that get searched for every day (Youku, NBA, etc. etc.) are discounted.
Still, this list is something I’ve been reading every day for the past several months, and it’s a pretty great indicator of what news stories are the hottest on any given day on the mainland. It is also, of course, censored. For that reason, I was doubly shocked when I saw Ai Weiwei’s name — I didn’t expect that many people to be searching for him, nor did I expect his name to be able to appear on this list.
The latter was, apparently, an oversight. Shortly after I noticed this and reported it on Twitter, the list was updated and Ai Weiwei was nowhere to be found. Clearly his initial presence on the list was just a temporary oversight on the part of Baidu’s censors. But what of the fact that he was getting searched for enough to appear there in the first place?
Regular Baidu searches for his name turn up fairly “harmless” stuff, as you would expect. There’s no reference to his activism or to his arrest and continuing detention ((Which, I recently learned, could be totally legal. Apparently under Chinese law you can be kept under house arrest indefinitely without charges or any need to notify the family of your whereabouts. This is true because most house arrests occur in one’s own house, but many have speculated that since Ai’s detention would be illegal at this point under Chinese law any other way, he may be officially under “house arrest,” but at a “house” that was chosen for him by police. That way, they can legally hold him as long as they want without charging him, and they don’t have to tell anyone where he is. Fun!)), which isn’t surprising given that Baidu’s search results are censored. But since almost all of the items on Baidu’s list come from news stories, I also checked Baidu’s news search and found this story, which is probably what sparked the spike in searches for Ai Weiwei.
As readers of Chinese will quickly see, it’s actually a story about economics, but a ways down the page there is an interview between a reporter and a representative of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, in which the reporter asks this question:
“Many people in Europe are concerned about the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, and I don’t know where he is either, can you tell us whether or not he is alive ((Presumably the interview was conducted before Ai was allowed to meet with his wife briefly earlier this week)), and what kind of charges he will face?”
The Foreign Ministry official’s answer is exactly what you’d expect, and I’m not going to translate it because you can read it in the Global Times in English basically any day of the week.
What’s interesting about this story is that a question about Ai phrased in that way is allowed to appear online uncensored, and morevoer, that such a question, halfway through an article about economics, would attract so much attention that the term “Chinese artist Ai Weiwei” would suddenly be propelled to the top ten of Baidu’s hot topics list.
Of course, there’s no way to be sure that article is what did it. But there are no other recent articles on Baidu about Ai Weiwei, and no other considerable reason that that search term would suddenly show up today.
In any event, it seems to indicate that Ai’s domestic profile (and the domestic profile of his arrest and detention) may be significantly higher than everyone — his detractors and his supporters alike — originally thought.
UPDATE: Fascinatingly, Ai Weiwei has also appeared — twice — on the weekly trending topics list, which isn’t something I look at. His name “Ai Weiwei” made the top ten weekly trending searches on May 14th and May 15th; screen captures of that as well as more analysis are available at ZaiChina (in Spanish, but Google Translate is your friend). Thanks to Daniel Mendez of ZaiChina for pointing this all out in the comments here.