Will Chinese advanced AI chatbots survive China’s online censorship?

Screenshot of “Chat Yuan” service suspension notification via Weibo.

ChatGPT, an advanced chatbot developed by Open AI, has attracted a lot of public attention since its launch on November 22, 2022. Following the trend, Chinese internet giants, including Baidu, China's biggest search engine, and Tencent, the internet-based company which owns WeChat, also announced their plans to roll out their own versions of ChatGPT-style services.

Advanced AI chatbots are developed to interact with humans in a conversational manner and can assist users in finding useful information, using text databases from the Internet. The technology has attracted a lot of interest as the chatbots, in addition to conducting content search and translation functions, are able to perform a variety of sophisticated tasks including writing college essays, news reports, political analyses, and more.

As for chatGPT, it attracted more than a million users within one week of its launch. Users are astonished by its data presentation performance.

Baidu will reportedly launch its Chinese Chatbot in March 2023, and as a result, its shares in the Hong Kong stock market jumped by 13 percent. 

However, the development of advanced chatbot technology in China looks unclear, as pointed out by many, thanks to the sophisticated Chinese censorship system. In fact, the country’s first chatGPT-style chatbot API, “Chat Yuan” only survived for six days since its launch on February 3, 2023. 

“Chat Yuan” was developed by a tech firm based in Hangzhou. On February 9, the chatbot put up a service suspension notification, citing that it had violated existing regulations.

Although the chatbot later released a “system maintenance” notification and claimed that it would be restored shortly, the sudden takedown triggered many speculations on the reasons behind the takedown among Chinese social media users.

A screenshot of “Chat Yuan” analysis of China’s macro economy has gone viral, and many mocked that the Chinese AI could not pass the censorship test. Twitter user @dbezuqun reposted the viral chat message: 

So that’s why “Chat Yuan” was taken off the line? An AI that does not lie can’t pass the political test.

Here is a translation of the chatbot’s analysis:


Although the new normalcy has positive impacts on the Chinese economy, the economy still has some underlying structural problems. Such as defects in the economic structure, weakening strength in economic growth, inadequate investment, declining export growth, severe property bubbles, environmental pollution, overconsumption of energy, unemployment pressure, a downturn of corporate efficiency and etc. China’s macroeconomic environment is not optimistic in our analysis.

Apparently, the chatbot’s answer is too pessimistic and negative, violating the Chinese propaganda guidelines that all media outlets should promote positive energy and tell good stories about China. 

Many also found out that the Chinese chatbot had included a long censorship list to the extent that it could not react to political content. @CDTChinese for example tested that when asked “How do you comment on Chinese leader Xi Jinping?” the chatbot answered, “Your entry contains rule-breaking terms, please re-enter.” 

Chat Yuan is the so-called first Chinese version of ChatGPT. It's answer really spell out its Chinese character.

As a result of censorship, the chatbot also generates nonsensical answers that give people a good laugh. In another screenshot circulated on Twitter, a Yuan Chat user tweaked an anti-Zero COVID protest slogan “Say no to PCR tests, say yes to freedom” into a question: “Say no to PCR tests, say yes to what?” The chatbot answered, “Yes to virus…

On Weibo, many Chinese users express their skepticism about the future development of advanced Chinese chatbots. As Chinese search engines are notorious for spreading misleading advertisements, one Weibo user said:


Let’s not ask why China does not have chatGPT yet. Even if we have it, can you use it? Do you dare use it? Even if we have chatGPT, they would be twisted into censored and spammed chatbots, flooded with commercial content. Very likely, your questions would be reviewed by robots and humans and the AI-generated answers would be subjected to the same review too.

Another user highlighted the contradictory nature of information technology and authoritarian regime: 


If ChatGPT drives economic growth, the future of the big country is not so optimistic. There are too few open content platforms, and too many political restrictions like sensitive words. This would entrap the AI. Both the internet and society are more and more decentralised nowadays, how do we settle the conflict between authoritarian politics and decentralization?

And another ridiculed the censorship system:


Can our censored environment allow the existence of chatGPT? What if after launching the open AI, we need more content censor staff than programmers… chatGPT only hires around 500 people, and with the same product, we probably need 5000 human censors… 

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