Silencing Discussion of June 4, Online and Off

Silencing Discussion of June 4, Online and Off

In the run-up to the 30th anniversary of the June 4 military crackdown on peaceful protesters in Beijing, the Chinese government went through its annual ritual of silencing any public discussions, detaining those who might speak out, and sending others out of the city away from the glare of international media. Poornima Weerasekara and Qasim Nauman of AFP report from Beijing:

Police checked the identification cards of every tourist and commuter leaving the subway near Tiananmen Square, the site of the pro- protests that were brutally extinguished by tanks and soldiers on June 4, 1989.

Foreign journalists were not allowed onto the square at all or warned by police not to take pictures. Officials told one reporter that “illegal media behaviour” could impact visa renewals.

[…] The Chinese Communist Party made sure the anniversary remained a distant memory on the mainland, detaining several in the run-up to June 4 while popular livestreaming sites conspicuously shut down for “technical” maintenance.

Searches by AFP for the term “Tiananmen” on the Twitter-like platform on Tuesday displayed the official logo of the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China. [Source]

James Griffiths reports for CNN that their website was blocked, as it often is on June 4, and that internet users had unusual difficulty using VPNs to access banned sites:

In the lead-up to June 4, internet users in China complained about difficulties accessing virtual private networks, a common method of bypassing the firewall, while posts on Chinese social media have been restricted or deleted as companies ramp up censorship during this sensitive period.

June 4 has been nicknamed “internet maintenance day” for the number of websites that go offline around the anniversary, their owners deciding that being dark is safer than accidentally publishing something which could provoke the ire of the authorities.

On Tuesday, CNN’s website was blocked by the Great Firewall. While the move is not unprecedented, CNN was available to users in China ahead of the June 4 anniversary, as confirmed by GreatFire.org, an independent site which analyzes in China. [Source]

At What’s on Weibo, Manya Koetse notes differences between this year’s censorship and years past:

What is noticeable about this anniversary on Weibo this year? Whereas certain combinations of ‘Tiananmen’ together with ‘protests’ or ‘6.4’ are always controlled on the social media site, searching for the Chinese word ‘Tiananmen’ now only shows a series of media posts about the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China (#庆祝新中国成立70年#). The posts all come from Chinese (state) media outlets and mention the word ‘Tiananmen’ in it, with different state media outlets all posting the same post after the other starting from Monday night local time (e.g. one posts at 19:35, the other at 19:36, 19:45, etc).

[…] Earlier on Monday, shortly before the press release, searching for ‘Tiananmen’ on Weibo showed that there were over 18 million posts containing the word ‘Tiananmen,’ but when clicking the results page, it suddenly showed that there were “no results” at all, suggesting a complete shutdown of searches for this term. [Source]

Much of the censorship surrounding June 4 happening online has been automated. Cate Cadell reports for Reuters:


Censors at Chinese internet companies say tools to detect and block content related to the 1989 crackdown have reached unprecedented levels of accuracy, aided by machine learning and voice and image recognition.

“We sometimes say that the artificial intelligence is a scalpel, and a human is a machete,” said one content screening employee at Beijing Bytedance Co Ltd, who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak to media.

Two employees at the firm said censorship of the Tiananmen crackdown, along with other highly sensitive issues including Taiwan and Tibet, is now largely automated.

Posts that allude to dates, images and names associated with the protests are automatically rejected. [Source]

Financial information provider Refinitiv removed Reuters stories related to June 4 from its terminals at the request of the Cyberspace Administration of China, according to a Reuters report:

Refinitiv took the action to block the stories last week after the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), which controls online speech, threatened to suspend the company’s service in China if it did not comply, three people with knowledge of the decision said.

Refinitiv’s intention was to block the distribution of the stories only in China, two people familiar with the matter said. However, many users outside of China said they could not see the stories. It was not clear why. [Source]

Refinitiv is partly owned by Reuters. Marc Tracy reports for The New York Times:

In a statement, Refinitiv pointed to legal realities in China, whose government previously blocked websites from publishing stories it deemed politically sensitive. The Chinese authorities have also denied visas to journalists working for news outlets that have published articles that were critical of the nation’s leaders.

In recent days, with the 30th anniversary of the uprising approaching, China has made efforts to quash public mentions of the day when tanks and troops moved into the Beijing plaza and crushed student-led protests. Reuters reported on Monday that the Cyberspace Administration of China, which censors online speech, had threatened to suspend Refinitiv if it did not go along with its demand to pull articles that mentioned what took place in Tiananmen Square. [Source]

Offline, activists and artists whose work broaches sensitive topics were detained, disappeared, or otherwise threatened not to speak out on the anniversary. China Change reports on one man who was detained for posting a photo on Twitter of a wine bottle with a label reading “Remember June 4, 1989”:

The wine bottle Deng Chuanbin had photographed at a friend’s home some time ago was not the same wine bottle that led to the incarceration of four men in Chengdu for three years without trial. It wasn’t until recently that three of them were released on probation and one remains in jail for refusing to admit guilt. Deng’s had the same label, transparent and cohesive, affixed to a regular wine bottle.

Just a photo of a wine bottle with the phrase “Remember 8964” proves too much for the Communist regime. At four in the morning, a swarm of police entered his house in the midst of lush greeneries and rice patties. He woke up his son, an elementary schooler, and told him that he had to go away for a while to do some business. The boy asked him whether he’d be gone for more than a day or two; he said it would be longer. As he spoke, he was encircled by officers while others looked around his house and videotaped.

[…] By that evening, police had raided his home, cut off the family’s Wifi, and took away their router in addition to all of his electronics: cellphones, iPad, laptop, desktop, video camera, camera, hard drives, and flash drives. His aging parents were shown a detention notice alleging Deng to have “provoked trouble” (寻衅滋事) and forced to sign it. They were given neither a copy of the notice nor a list of confiscated items. [Source]

China Human Rights Defenders has confirmed 18 people who were “detained/disappeared/forced to travel” and nine more who were questioned or put under house arrest:

The government’s pre-emptive strikes against anyone trying to mark the 30thAnniversary had started in early May. So far, we have documented a number of cases involving individuals either detained or forced into disappearance, including forced travel, in connection to the anniversary. CHRD urges the Chinese government to immediately and unconditionally release them.

This year’s pre-June 4thcrackdown continues a 30-year long campaign by the Chinese government to try to erase the memory and rewrite the history of the bloody military suppression of peaceful unarmed protesters and residents of Beijing and other cities on June 3-4, 1989.  The Chinese government has systematically curtailed citizens’ exercise of their rights to freedom of expression, information, press, peaceful assembly, and association in discussing or commemorating or obtaining information about the 1989 movement and Tiananmen Massacre. 

Against tremendous pressure and personal risk, many Chinese have spoken up and kept the Tiananmen memories alive. In April, Chengdu authorities convicted four activists of “picking quarrels” after holding them for three-years in pre-trial detention on “endangering state security” charges for their role in producing and sharing photos online of a wine label referring to 1989 to mark the 27th anniversary in 2016. In November 2018, a Zhuhai court sentenced activist Li Xiaoling (李小玲) to three years in prison, suspended for five years, after she shared a photo of her holding a sign in Tiananmen Square to mark the anniversary in 2017. [Source

At AP, Wang Yanan reports on the disappearance of singer Li Zhi, who had penned several songs alluding to the 1989 protest movement and crackdown. He had earlier been the subject of a propaganda directive banning audio and video content of his songs:

A statement published in April by Sichuan’s culture department said it had “urgently halted” concert plans for a “well-known singer with improper conduct” who was previously slated for 23 performances — the same number of concerts which Li had scheduled in the province. It said 18,000 tickets were fully refunded.

Authorities in China regularly use “improper conduct” to describe political transgressions.

Around the same time, Li’s presence on the Chinese internet was completely erased. An April 21 central government directive ordered all websites to delete any audio or video content relating to five of Li’s songs, according to China Digital Times, an organization that publishes leaked censorship instructions.

The Associated Press could not independently verify the authenticity of the directive.

“There’s pretty much a consensus” among those working in the industry that Li’s disappearance from public view is due to the sensitive anniversary, said a music industry professional who spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of government retribution. [Source]

For Globe and Mail, Nathan VanderKlippe visited Tiananmen Square and met a 61-year-old man who had come to pay silent tribute:

Last year, in the contemplation of retirement, something changed. A yearning inexplicably grew in him. He began to think again like the man he was 25 years ago. “I believe in democracy and freedom,” he said. “I think China should move toward democracy and abandon one-party rule.”

Still, he knows his hope must confront the difficulty of ever achieving those dreams.
As he walked around the square Wednesday, he saw a group of young people sitting next to the fence that surrounds the Mao mausoleum, where every day crowds of people still shuffle by in silence to pay respects to the father of Communist China. “They looked very happy,” the man said.

It was a sobering moment. “People their age likely have no idea at all about what happened,” he said. “That’s exactly what the authorities expect. They just want to hold out until it’s all gone.” [Source]

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