4 Jun 2014

How Chinese people bypass Tiananmen silence – online

Search for “Tiananmen Square” on Chinese social media and you will usually draw a blank. But China’s online community have adopted unconventional strategies to talk about the massacre 25 years ago.

'Tank man', the seminal image from the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre

You are unlikely to find anything under the search term “Tiananmen Square” when trawling through China’s biggest social networking site, despite it being 25 years since the massacre, writes freelance journalist Suswati Basu. In fact, any combination of numbers and words resembling 4 June 1989 has been blocked on China’s Twitter-like site Weibo.

That is because the country’s vast internet censorship machine has been scrubbing clean any record of the event from social media sites down to its main search engine Baidu. Even on the 25th anniversary, the Communist party has continued its long-running campaign to force the Chinese public to forget the moment when People’s Liberation Army soldiers opened fire on civilians in Beijing after months of protests in Tiananmen Square.

See video: Tiananmen protest disrupted by China embassy staff
'May 35' was used as a workaround last year, but is now blocked on China's social network Weibo

“May 35” was used as a workaround last year, but is now blocked on China’s social network Weibo

Consequently, all versions of Google and its services were blocked in the country today, in what was deemed as the most “severe” crackdown during an anniversary, according to internet censorship monitoring site greatfirewallofchina.org.

As seen in Baidu Baike, China‘s version of Google and Wikipedia, you will only find two entries for the year 1989: “1. 1989 is a leap year” and “2. 1989 is when Japan’s Hesei era began”. However, despite the efforts of authorities employing the country’s great firewall, comments made by Chinese internet users over Tiananmen Square have remained intact in some places, even on Baidu’s own Wiki page.

Caption: Comments made by Chinese netizens show they have been bypassing censors

Caption: Comments made by Chinese netizens show they have been bypassing censors

China’s savvy netizens have taken to unconventional strategies in order to circumvent social media censors that are policing the social networking sites. They could be homophones (pronounced the same as a word likely to be censored but differs in meaning), euphemisms, characters that look almost the same (changing the typography) or words with English letters replacing the Chinese ones. It is a linguistic game of wits that takes place daily.

Since “4 June” would certainly have been blocked, one image that was shared last year was an edited version of the infamous “tank man” (see top image) that has become synonymous with the event. The satirical version comprised of Hong Kong’s renowned giant rubber duck installation instead of tanks. The lone man blocking a column of tanks was also reimagined in Lego.

This year, the censors have also cracked down on images and symbols, including emoticons of candles to stop anyone from possibly showing sympathy to the hundreds of people who were killed. However, a recent poem that appeared online as an image said: “Sail the ocean, sweep the square, clan king and eye field cannot be stopped!”

Poem shown to include characters that resemble the words “democracy” and “freedom”

In Chinese, “clan king” resembles the Chinese characters for “democracy” with the exception of several strokes, while “eye field” is typographically similar to the Chinese word for “freedom”. Due to its mix of technologies, it was not detected and the poem managed to stay online (see image above)

There is no doubt that China’s censors have gone beyond blocking expected sensitive terms like “25 years”, but also blocking the code term “May 35th” or the corresponding “535” code. Even the French-language “six-quatre” and Roman numerals “VIIIV” were blocked. Both “square” and “square dance” have also been blacklisted in this year’s landmark anniversary.

Contrastingly on Twitter, the #TAM25 hashtag has seen a surge of users posting photographs of themselves with their faces covered and messages of support written on their hands.

And it is not just the world wide web authorities have been targeting. Chinese police have detained almost 60 people in the lead-up to 4 June. Amnesty International, which has been documenting the names of the activists held, said that China’s President Xi Jinping was opting for “repression over reform”. Amnesty General Secretary Salil Shetty added:

“The 25th Tiananmen anniversary was a critical test for President Xi’s claims to be delivering greater openness (…) The response by the Chinese authorities to the 25th anniversary has been harsher than in previous years, as they persist with trying to wipe the events of 4 June from memory.”

Those detained in recent weeks include human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and prominent journalist Gao Yu. Others, including Ding Zilin, spokesperson for the Tiananmen Mothers, have been placed under house arrest.

“It’s not too late for Xi to change tack and we urge him to launch an open and independent investigation into the violent crackdown of 1989,” Shetty said.