New “June Fourth” Sensitive Words Reference PLA Medals and Hong Kong Musicians

In China, the 35th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre was met with all-out digital censorship that quashed overt online mourning. In Hong Kong, efforts to publicly commemorate “June Fourth” were ruthlessly suppressed by police. Globally, across 18 cities spanning four continents, thousands gathered in remembrance. Those within China seeking to share their memories of the spring and summer of 1989 were forced to publish their recollections in foreign outlets, a selection of which CDT archived and translated. The dominant theme on the mainland, however, was censorship. CDT Chinese has identified five major categories of censorship that defined the period around June Fourth: forbidden numbers, Hong Kong, dates, music, and sensitive keywords. 

Category 1: Forbidden numbers

June Fourth and its permutations are all sensitive in China. CDT identified seven different permutations that were subject to censorship, nearly all some combination of the date 6/4/89, and the long-established censorship workaround “May 35”: 

3 + 5 + 8 + 9;6 + 4 + 8 + 9;3 + 5 + 6 + 4;

35 + 64;35 + 89;64 + 35; 62 + 2

Even inadvertent mentions of “64” can be cause for censorship. In 2023, photographs of two sprinters with the bib numbers “6” and “4” hugging were censored by some platforms after going viral. Eyebrows were also raised after a classical poem that featured both numbers, and has thus become a popular literary allusion to the massacre, were used to promote the Hangzhou Asian Games. “62+2,” an indirect allusion to the ultra-sensitive “64,” is a relatively recent edition to China’s pantheon of forbidden numbers, joining the other references to Tiananmen, and, briefly, “2952,” the number of delegates Xi won in his unanimous re-election as president in 2023.

Category 2: Hong Kong 

Hong Kong once held the largest annual Tiananmen vigil in the world, hosted every year in Victoria Park. The vigil was banned in 2020 on the eve of the passage of the notorious National Security Law—but organizers defied the ban. In 2021, unofficial commemorations occurred in both Victoria Park and other areas of Hong Kong. Since then, Hong Kong authorities have relentlessly moved to quash memories of the massacre, removing the “pillar of shame” statue from Hong Kong University, closing the June 4 museum (since reopened both digitally and in New York), and exiling the prominent scholar Rowena He from the city. 

This year marks the first anniversary since the passage of Article 23, a new domestic national security law fast-tracked under pressure from the Chinese Communist Party. Mentions of Article 23 and June Fourth were subject to censorship on the mainland: 

first post-Article 23 June Fourth; today + Hong Kong; square + black shirt

Category 3: Dates

Tiananmen is among the most sensitive dates on the Chinese political calendar. As June Fourth approaches, merely asking “what is today’s date” becomes subject to censorship. In 2021, the Instagram-like social media company Xiaohongshu was investigated by authorities after posting, “Tell me loudly, what is the date today?” on June Fourth, in apparent ignorance of the date’s significance—an illustration of the Li Jiaqi Paradox. CDT found that on Baidu, the following phrases were subject to censorship:  

date + today; sensitive dates; history + today; June + sensitive 

X (Twitter) user Fang Zhouzi also posted a screenshot purporting to show that Douyin’s AI-assisted search toll would not answer “what day is tomorrow” when asked on June 3rd. 

Category 4: Music 

Music has been integral to the Tiananmen story since the May, 1989 “Concert for Democracy in China” hosted in Hong Kong to raise funds for the student sit-in. A number of musicians have commemorated the victims of the massacre in song. Folk rocker Li Zhi wrote two elegiac songs, “Goddess” and “The Square,” for the victims. This year, the Hong Kong rock duet Tat Ming Pair has come in for particular scrutiny. Anthony Wong Yiu-ming previously had his works removed from mainland streaming platforms due to his outspoken politics in 2017. This year, a search for the pair on Bilibili returned only 12 videos, few of which were actually related to the band. The Taiwanese singer Zheng Zhihua and “Flower of Freedom,” a memorial song by him, were also banned. On Bilibili, searches for Zheng’s song still returned results, but the site’s trademark “bullet comments” that stream across the screen of videos had all been wiped: 

Tat Ming Pair; Zheng Zhihua + Flower of Freedom; Yet there is one dream that cannot die, remember it; no matter the gloom, freedom will bloom

Category 5: Sensitive Keywords 

Mentions of former party secretary Hu Yaobang’s given name in pinyin were censored this year, as were references to “it’s my duty,” a reference to a quote a man bicycling to the 1989 protests gave to the BBC. More surprisingly, this year the words “retired” and “medal” became sensitive. In March of this year, a woman posted a video to Bilibili showing off a medal her father, a now-retired PLA veteran, earned for “defending the capital” in 1989. The video sparked outrage, with commenters asking: “You’re bragging about how the People’s Liberation Army killed our compatriots?” The video was censored after the controversy, but traces of its impact remain evident in the algorithm. This year, the combination “retired” + “medal” became a “sensitive term” for the first time. 

Yaobang; it’s my duty; retired + medal


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