Tiananmen Square Anniversary: China Experiments with Subtle Censorship and Netizens Fight Back with Images

To ensure its country’s Internet remains in good working order, the Chinese government has used June 4 as an unofficial “Internet maintenance” day. In 2009, more than 300 sites went down. In 2010, a slew of blocked sites (many pornographic) became accessible. Last year, the Shanghai Stock Exchange Composite Index dropped 64.89 points, leading the popular Chinese microblogging service Sina Weibo to ban searches of related terms. Why such erratic behavior? June 4 also marks the day when, in 1989, tanks entered Tiananmen Square to violently quash pro-democracy protests.

Days before this year’s 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Weibo experimented with a much subtler form of censorship, but Chinese netizens used creative images to signal their acknowledgement of what Chinese government wishes the country would forget.

Typically, users who search for sensitive terms such as “June 4th incident” receive the message, “According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, search results for [keyword] cannot be displayed.” Beginning on May 31, searches for “Tiananmen incident,” “24th anniversary,” “June 4th,” “64 incident” returned a sanitized list, for example, referencing a 1976 protest that occurred in Tiananmen Square, or a seemingly innocuous message that the search yielded no results, according to analysis from the Chinese Internet transparency organization GreatFire.org.

By the evening of June 3, Weibo reverted to displaying its original censorship announcement in response to searches of sensitive terms. Citizen Lab posted a list of 71 terms blocked on Weibo, many variations on the numbers six, four, and 1989. China Digital Times mentioned additional terms including names of people and places.

The seemingly benign terms “today,” “tonight,” “big yellow duck,” and “black shirt” also faced restriction on Weibo. The latter two reference an online meme and calls for Chinese to wear black shirts to observe the anniversary.

While Weibo’s text filters grow ever more sophisticated, the network seems less able to police images. Chinese netizens exploited this fact, posting variations of the iconic “Tank Man” image. One replaced the tanks with yellow rubber ducks (hence the blockage of “big yellow duck”); one showed a cow in front of a line of bulldozers; another showed a praying mantis pushing against a wheel, referencing a popular idiom about the futility of trying to stop the future.

On May 31, the Chinese government also cut off access to the encrypted (https) version of Wikipedia, which Chinese Internet users could use to see articles banned on the unencrypted (http) version.