Netizens Defy Tiananmen Silencing

As the 20-year anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown approaches, Chinese netizens find ways to work around government censorship.
2009-04-22
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Chinese netizens surf the Web at an Internet cafe in Hefei, in central China's Anhui province, Jan. 25, 2007.
Chinese netizens surf the Web at an Internet cafe in Hefei, in central China's Anhui province, Jan. 25, 2007.
AFP

HONG KONGAn article criticizing China's deadly 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing has appeared on an official Web site ahead of the incident’s 20-year anniversary, but it was quickly deleted from the public eye.

The article was published Sunday on the Changde Dang Jian Wang Web site, which is hosted by the Communist Party committee in Changde city in China’s southern Hunan province. It was deleted later the same day.

Chinese authorities have forbidden mention of the June 4, 1989 anniversary, and analysts say the appearance and removal of the article suggest a conflict between China’s government and its netizens over what happened 20 years ago, and how to remember it.

My colleague will be held liable for his posting, and this was not a mistake."

Changde Dang Jian Wang Web site employee

The article, titled “The Anecdotes of the 38th Army Commander Xu Qinxian,” recalls how People’s Liberation Army Lt. Gen. Xu Qinxian refused to lead his troops into Beijing on the eve of the crackdown. Xu was given a five-year jail term for refusing to follow orders.

At the end of the article, apparently written 10 years after the Tiananmen incident in 1999, the anonymous writer asks, “Now two five-year periods have already passed, but where is Gen. Xu?”

Article deleted

A staff member of Changde Dang Jian Wang, who asked to remain anonymous, confirmed that the article had been deleted by late Sunday.

“The article had to be deleted because its content is somehow…untrue. The original posting date for the article was Aug. 15, 2006 though,” he said.

The staff member said the article had been forwarded on to the Web site by a Changde resident “a long time ago,” but was blocked. He said the person responsible for eventually publishing it Sunday would be held accountable.

“My colleague will be held liable for his posting, and this was not a mistake. It shocked the management, who gave a lot of attention to it and reported the incident to higher-level authorities,” he added.

From the government’s point of view, June 4 is a sensitive topic."

Zhang Boshu, CASS

On Monday, an online search into content accessible within China revealed three articles with the same title about Gen. Xu, but none could be accessed.

A sensitive topic

Zhang Boshu, a scholar with the Institute of Philosophy at the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, said Chinese authorities are putting serious effort into blocking online information related to the June 4 Incident.

“From the government’s point of view, June 4 is a sensitive topic,” Zhang said.

“No matter who the original writer might be, no matter if the views of the deleted article about Gen. Xu Qinxian are objective or not, even if the article is critical of the [pro-democracy] students of June 4, it will make somebody nervous,” he said.

But Zhang added that with the increase in public access to information, Chinese authorities would be unable to block related content indefinitely.

“It has been 20 years since the June 4 incidentit is impossible for the truth to be hidden forever,” he said.

Flow of information

Chinese authorities currently block access to online versions of foreign media by disabling proxy software used by netizens to bypass government firewalls.

Authorities have also been deleting an increasing number of blogs containing words and phrases banned by the government and shutting down Web sites they perceive to be harmful to social harmony.

But U.S.-based computer scientist Zhou Shiyu said that Chinese authorities’ efforts “are to no avail.”

“The Chinese government cannot completely block the flow of information unless it cuts off the cyber connections between China and the outside world. This is physically impossible,” Zhou said.

However, Zhou said that by allocating a large amount of resources, Chinese authorities “might be able to block more [content] on a temporary basis.”

Li Yuan, another U.S.-based computer scientist, believes that blocking information will only prompt a backlash against the Chinese government by its netizens.

“Blocking [information] will certainly make people dislike the government even more. It reminds people of how bad their social circumstances are,” he said.

Growing online activity

China had 253 million Internet users by mid-2008, according to official statistics from the China Internet Network Information Center.

They spend more time online than netizens in any other country with the exception of France and South Korea.

Chinese Web surfers are also more likely to contribute to blogs, forums, chat rooms, and other social media such as photo and video-sharing sites.

China's 47 million bloggers are frequently subjected to censorship by their Internet service providers, but politically sensitive material also routinely falls through the cracks as individual companies interpret government guidelines in their own way.

In a report focusing on user-generated content on social media and blogging platforms, Hong Kong University new media professor Rebecca MacKinnon found that censorship levels across 15 different Chinese blogging platforms varied even more than expected.

The report, titled "China's Censorship 2.0: How Chinese Companies Censor Bloggers," also said "a great deal of politically sensitive material survives in the Chinese blogosphere, and chances for survival can likely be improved with knowledge and strategy."

Original reporting in Mandarin by Wen Jian and Qiao Long. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated by Chen Ping. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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