A Tibetan search engine, backed by the Chinese authorities, has been launched.
Yongzim claims to be better at handling complex searches involving several words in the language than any alternative.
But a spokesman for the government in exile, the Central Tibetan Administration, told the BBC it could also be used as a “platform to promote propaganda to legitimise the illegal occupation of Tibet.”
Tibet is governed as an autonomous region of China. Beijing claims a centuries-old sovereignty over the Himalayan region, yet the allegiances of many Tibetans lie with the exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, seen by China as a separatist threat.
Exile groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) around the world accuse Beijing of suppressing the region’s culture and tradition with the Tibetan language being a big part of it.
Is it the first Tibetan search engine?
Both Google – which is blocked in China and therefore also in Tibet – and the Chinese search engine Baidu can also carry out searches in Tibetan.
But Yongzim is entirely in Tibetan, including all the elements of its interface – and in that respect it is indeed a first. Its name translates as “master” or “teacher”.
So, why the need for Yongzim.com?
According to Chinese state media, the service will promote the Tibetan language and provide a dedicated platform for Tibetan-language websites.
“[It will] meet the growing needs of the Tibetan-speaking population and facilitate the building of Tibetan digital archives and the expansion of databases in the Tibetan language,” an official said.
Kyinzom Dhongdue, of the Australia Tibet Council, told the BBC she welcomed the initiative as a “positive step towards popularising the use of the Tibetan language” but cautioned it could become a “propaganda tool” for Beijing.
Aynne Kokas, an expert on Chinese media at the University of Virginia in the US, also described it as being a “major technological advancement” that could be useful for “non-sensitive queries”. But she said it would also “make it easier to redirect web traffic” to sites that tallied with the Chinese government’s views.
The Free Tibet movement noted that the effort marked a change of policy.
“After decades of effectively suppressing the Tibetan language, China now puts emphasis on being seen to support it,” spokesman Alistair Currie told the BBC.
“As with everything in Tibet, language is tainted with political connotations, and Beijing wants to control any development rather than permit it.”
What kind of search results does it produce?
A simple picture search for the term Dalai Lama – the spiritual and former political leader of Tibet who fled the country after China took control of the territory in 1950 – is revealing.
Yongzim brings up only a single result, unlike Google, which produces dozens of photos.
“As we have already seen with Baidu, though the site is highly functional, the more centralisation there is of search, the easier it is to block specific terms,” Ms Kokas told the BBC.
Even so, many “young, educated, online-savvy Tibetans inside Tibet have welcomed” the new search engine in their own language, said Ms Dhongdue.
“[Yet] this can also be seen as the Chinese government trying to win the hearts of the educated elites in Tibet,” she said.
“In recent years, a growing number of the educated youth in Tibet has expressed their criticism of China’s policies in Tibet through blogs, art and music.”
With the internet becoming ever more widely accessible in Tibet, the number of websites in the region’s language has steadily been on the rise, including blogs and social media.
Accordingly, Chinese authorities have paid close attention to the content being published.
Any websites producing content that Beijing does not like, run the risk of getting shut down and the people behind them face punishment or jail.
China already operates what is often described as a “Great Firewall”, which keeps its citizens from accessing websites Beijing deems to be undesirable or likely to undermine its political and economic goals.
Within that context, it is little wonder that Yongzim is seen by many as a further attempt to control and influence what its citizens do on the net.
How good is Tibet’s Beijing-backed search engine?