Tiananmen anniversary keeps Chinese censors on edge

Beijing still shows extreme sensitivity to the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square. China's version of Twitter is censoring everything from today's date to the word 'candle.'

Ng Han Guan/AP
Visitors take photos near a Chinese national flag with Tiananmen Gate in the background as many gathered to mark the anniversary of the deadly 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protestors which centered on Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, China, Monday, June 4.

 For the 23rd year in a row, the Chinese authorities today continued their efforts to impose collective amnesia about the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989, seeking to stamp out any public reference to the event.

For Beijing, the date, “6.4” as it has become known in China, is one not to be commemorated, but rather obliterated from the calendar. The government has always refused to discuss what happened when soldiers were ordered to disperse pro-democracy demonstrators on Tiananmen Square. Officially, they killed only about 200 protesters; but activists’ estimates range from several hundreds to several thousands.

The official blanket denial of the date has worked, to a large extent: Few ordinary Chinese citizens under the age of 30 are aware of the Tiananmen demonstrations or their tragic end. But censors remain determined to foil any attempt by people who do know what happened to say anything about it. Anything at all.

Censors at Sina Weibo, the popular Twitter-like social media platform, were working overtime to block searches for – or references to – “6.4” or other obvious signifiers such as “tank,” “crush,” “never forget,” and “square.”

“535” was a forbidden term, too, because Internet users have taken to referring to May 35,  instead of June 4. Classically minded censors wouldn’t let you post anything with VIIIIXVIIV in it either, in case readers familiar with Roman numerals could decipher 89.6.4. And by late afternoon, even the word “today” had been banned.

Over the weekend, Sina Weibo disabled its candle icon, which users might find an appropriate symbol with which to commemorate the Tiananmen dead. An explanation from the website said the icon was “currently being optimized” but nobody believed it. Before long there were 200,000 posts on Sina referring to “Weibo” and “candle” and the next thing anyone knew, the word “candle” itself became a banned search term.

As if to highlight the absurdity of how hard Sina Weibo censors were working, an impeccable and seemingly irrelevant source of information, the Shanghai Stock Exchange, suddenly turned subversive. By an extraordinary coincidence (or maybe not), the Shanghai Composite Index, which measures the market’s daily movement, fell on Monday by 64.89 points, in an uncensorable reminder of the date of the massacre.

Though the official campaign to airbrush the Tiananmen Square events out of Chinese history has been successful with most citizens, there are some, of course, who can never forget because their own children died.

One such father, Ya Weilin, apparently exhausted and driven to despair by his failure after nearly a quarter of a century to persuade the government to account for his son’s death, hanged himself 10 days ago. Tiananmen is still claiming victims; 23 years ago they were felled by bullets. Today they succumb to silence.

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