A Chinese translation app is censoring politically sensitive terms, report says

iFlytek's app won't translate “Tiananmen square” or “independence”.

Zoey Chong Reporter
Zoey is CNET's Asia News Reporter based in Singapore. She prefers variety to monotony and owns an Android mobile device, a Windows PC and Apple's MacBook Pro all at the same time. Outside of the office, she can be found binging on Korean variety shows, if not chilling out with a book at a café recommended by a friend.
Zoey Chong
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iFlytek's voice translator won't tell you what "Tiananmen square" is in Chinese.

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More Chinese tech firms are erring on the side of caution when it comes to policing content on their platforms.

iFlytek, a voice recognition technology provider in China, has begun censoring politically sensitive terms from its translation app, South China Morning Post reported citing a tweet by Jane Manchun Wong. Wong is a software engineer who tweets frequently about hidden features she uncovers by performing app reverse-engineering.

In the tweet, Wong shows that when she tried to translate certain phrases such as "Taiwan independence," "Tiananmen square " and "Tiananmen square massacre" from English to Chinese, the system failed to churn out results for sensitive terms or names. The same happened when she tried to translate "Taiwan independence" from Chinese to English -- results showed up as an asterisk.

CNET got the same results when we tested the app, though we were able to translate "Tiananmen" and "Tiananmen square" from Chinese to English. We were also able to translate "Xi Jinping" from Chinese to English, though the Chinese president's name either refused to show up or repeated "Xu Jinping" when we tried translating from English to Chinese. "Winnie the Pooh" surprisingly also worked for us -- the cartoon bear was censored on China's internet because people compared it to China's president -- though SCMP got mixed results.

The censorship appears to be limited to the Android version of the app. The terms that couldn't be translated on Android worked fine on the iOS version when CNET's Aloysius Low tested on his iPhone.

This censorship comes as China steps up efforts to clean up content on the internet. In order to make sure they are compliant with local regulations, other companies are also removing what the ruling party sees as illegal content from their platforms, though these are typically limited to social networks such as Twitter-equivalent Weibo and WhatsApp-like service WeChat.

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