China’s Rulers Fear the Ghosts of Tiananmen
In the run-up to the 25th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, military crackdown on student-led prodemocracy protests in Tiananmen Square, the Chinese Communist Party’s multifaceted censorship apparatus has gone into overdrive to limit discussion of the events of that day and the following weeks.
Dozens of citizens, journalists, lawyers, and activists who might commemorate the anniversary have been detained, private internet companies have ramped up restrictions on social-media posts and search engine results, and the so-called Great Firewall has intensified blocking of Google services and foreign news sources. Yet the party’s extraordinary efforts to impose collective amnesia about the tragic incident serve as an indirect acknowledgement that many Chinese people would like to publicly commemorate it—and that the regime is profoundly insecure about how any such observances could affect its hold on power.
Below is a review of recent developments drawn from the latest issue of Freedom House’s China Media Bulletin, a biweekly update of press freedom and censorship news related to the People’s Republic of China.
Security clampdown in Beijing, march and mass vigil in Hong Kong
Authorities in Beijing intensified the city’s already tight security ahead of the 25th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, military crackdown on student-led prodemocracy protests in Tiananmen Square (see CMB No. 105). State-run media reported on May 30 that hundreds of thousands of security personnel had been deployed in the capital. Security posts were set up at 192 major intersections encircling the city, and some 850,000 volunteers conducted daily patrols to report any suspicious activities. Passengers on public transportation were subject to inspections equivalent to the level of airport security checks. The authorities announced that there was no upper budget limit for the operation to prevent a repeat of the mass protests in 1989, apparently wary of growing public dissatisfaction with official corruption, rights abuses, and environmental degradation. Renowned online activist Bei Feng reported that to prevent foreign students from participating in events commemorating the June 4 crackdown, the University of Political Science and Law in Beijing sent out a notice on May 29 requiring all foreign students to attend a “free study tour” to Inner Mongolia or the Beijing suburbs on June 3–4. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, where commemorations of the 1989 crackdown are still allowed despite growing restrictions on the territory’s traditional freedom of expression, about 3,000 marchers braved the hottest day of the year on June 1 to call for an official vindication of the 1989 prodemocracy movement. Lee Cheuk-yan, the organizer of the march, said he was “very satisfied” with the turnout, which had reportedly doubled in size compared with 2013. The march was to be followed by the main memorial event, a candlelight vigil on June 4, which was expected to draw at least 150,000 people to Hong Kong’s Victoria Park.
Detentions expand in scope and severity ahead of June 4
As of June 3, the New York–based rights group Human Rights in China (HRIC) had documented 91 cases of criminal or administrative detention, house arrest, police questioning, enforced disappearance, or forced travel since April in connection with the lead-up to the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square military crackdown (see CMB No. 105). The Chinese authorities usually tighten restrictions on writers and activists ahead of the June 4 anniversary, but in past years most were placed under temporary house arrest or asked to “travel” out of town for a few days. This year, based on the list published by HRIC, 45 people were confirmed to have been arrested or detained on criminal charges, representing a significant escalation in the severity of the effort and its potential long-term impact should they be convicted. In another change from past years, several detainees have been charged with “creating a public disturbance,” a crime that carries up to five years in prison, simply for commemorating the Tiananmen crackdown in a private home. The following cases illustrate the extent of this year’s restrictions:
- Xin Jian: The Chinese news assistant for Japan’s Nikkei news agency was taken from her home on May 13 and has been held on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” The detention is allegedly connected with an interview she conducted with human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who is also under arrest for commemorating the Tiananmen anniversary on May 3 in a private home.
- Guo Jian: The Australian artist was taken from his home in Beijing on June 1, hours after the publication of an interview he gave on the Tiananmen crackdown. In the interview, Guo reportedly discussed his creation of a diorama of Tiananmen Square covered in 160 kilograms of minced pork.
- Liu Wei: A factory worker in Chongqing, Liu was taken by the police to Beijing and criminally detained on May 17 after posting a photo on the internet of himself in Tiananmen Square. He is held on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Liu had been sentenced to two years in a “reeducation through labor” camp in 2011 for posting information about a “Jasmine Revolution,” and had since been under close surveillance.
- Xiang Nanfu: A regular contributor to the New York–based news website Boxun, Xiang was said to have transmitted information regarding land grabs and police violence to Boxun. He was detained on May 3 on charges of supplying “fabricated information” that “seriously harmed” China’s image. In mid-May, he was shown on state television admitting his guilt, the latest in a series of such televised confessions by journalists and bloggers.
Tang Jingling: The prominent Guangzhou-based human rights lawyer was placed under criminal detention on May 16, after police searched his home and confiscated computers and other materials. Tang was reportedly kicked and beaten in detention.
Censors target June 4 social-media mentions, search results
As the June 4 anniversary approached, censors in China were in full swing, obstructing the circulation of information and commentary about the events of 1989. Tests by websites like China Digital Times and the blog Fei Chang Dao found that search engines including Baidu and Qihoo as well as the search function on the microblogging services of Sina and Tencent were censoring results for a large number of related terms. These ranged from the obvious—such as “June 4,” “Tiananmen Mothers” (a loose network of mothers whose children were killed in the massacre), or “Wu’er Kaixi” (one of the 1989 student movement’s leaders, now in exile)—to code words commonly used by netizens, such as “May 35” or “willow silk” (a homonym for “six-four” in Chinese). As often occurs ahead of particularly sensitive dates, some of the terms censored were more general phrases like “Tiananmen,” “25 years,” or even “this day.” Despite the authorities’ efforts to contain commemoration of the event, netizens across the political spectrum were discussing it, as evident from the large number of deleted posts documented by projects like Hong Kong University’s Weiboscope. In one example, a Sina Weibo user wrote: “This will definitely be deleted. But still I will post a June 4 tweet and get myself banned from Weibo! Heaven will forbid such lies.” The controversial neo-Maoist and nationalist professor Kong Qinghong had his Weibo account shuttered after he posted a message challenging the official line that the students were “rioting” rather than peacefully protesting.
Foreign web services face more intense blocking
Alongside domestic censorship, the Chinese government’s efforts to restrict citizens’ access to foreign websites and news sources have intensified in recent days. Most notably, internet users and activists have reported obstructions to a wide variety of Google products—including Gmail, Google search engines (including foreign versions like Google France), the Picasa photo-sharing platform, and Google Translate—rendering them inaccessible to most users in China. The blocking is not complete but rather a disruption that affects most users and could lead them to conclude that it is a technical problem on Google’s part. Google stated that there is “nothing wrong on our end,” and its Transparency Report confirms a clear drop in traffic from China since June 1. According to the website GreatFire.org, which initially reported the so-called throttling, the phenomenon has lasted for several days, much longer than previous incidents (such as a 12-hour block in 2012; see CMB No. 74), raising the possibility that the new restrictions may be permanent. The U.S.-based microblogging service Twitter was first blocked in 2009, on the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, and it has remained inaccessible ever since. Meanwhile, other media reported blocks on the Wall Street Journal’s English- and Chinese-language websites, and cases of foreign correspondents being summoned by Chinese officials for lectures to dissuade them from covering the anniversary. The spokesman for the LinkedIn professional networking platform told reporters that “censorship requirements” had recently been imposed on the company’s new Chinese-language service, though no further details were provided (see CMB No. 101).
U.S. House resolution urges end of Tiananmen censorship
On May 21, in a nearly unanimous vote, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution calling on the Chinese authorities to stop censoring information about the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, and to end the harassment, detention, torture, and imprisonment of Chinese citizens who exercise their fundamental rights, including on the internet. Referring to Beijing’s information blackout while presenting a copy of the iconic “Tank Man” photograph, in which an unidentified civilian stands in the street to block a line of tanks on the morning after the massacre of prodemocracy protesters, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi said, “If you were to go to China and ask young people about this picture, they know nothing about it.” On May 30, an editorial in the Chinese Communist Party–owned newspaper Global Times condemned the “rascally varmints” in Congress and their “anti-China bill.” The piece made only an oblique reference to the “1989 political incident,” focusing instead on China’s rejection of U.S. criticism and the country’s economic achievements since the early 1990s.
Notable Analysis: The People’s Republic of Amnesia
A new book by former National Public Radio correspondent Louisa Lim revisits the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square prodemocracy movement, exploring its legacy for modern China and how the Chinese Communist Party has sought to rewrite history. Lim introduces readers to former officials, soldiers, and family members of those killed in the crackdown, all of whose lives were transformed by the events of June 1989. Drawing on extensive interviews and documentary evidence, she brings to light previously little-known incidents of abuse outside Beijing at the time, including one particularly brutal episode in Chengdu. Recent reviews in the Economist and the New York Times Book Review commend her meticulous recording of what remains a national tragedy and an unhealed wound for China.
Image Credit: Badiucao 巴丢草
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.