Tiananmen Square and the Rise of Chinese Censorship

According to the Chinese government, thirty years ago today, nothing happened in Tiananmen Square. But everywhere else, today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the deadly suppression of protests against the authoritarian policies of the Chinese Communist Government. In China, the event is known as the “June Fourth Incident,” though it has been effectively scrubbed from the internet in Mainland China. But for this anniversary, a controversial anonymous political cartoonist in China finally showed his face. This is just one of many dissidents, some of whom are taking risky measures to get around China’s Great Firewall to avoid censorship, despite some US companies helping the Chinese government.

If you’re unfamiliar, weeks of peaceful protests broke out after the death of a Communist leader who was pro-reform during a time of rapid social and economic change in the post-Mao country. Inflation and corruption were rampant, and college students demanded change. Despite the disorganization of the movement, the calls for more democracy, free speech, free press, and government accountability united about a million people in Tiananmen Square at the height of the protests. China’s leader at the time and Communist Party elders deemed the protests as a political threat and the State Council declared Martial law, sending three hundred thousand troops to Beijing. Early in the morning on June fourth, the troops advanced, killing both demonstrators and bystanders, many in their twenties and some younger, shocking the world. Although the official number of deaths is disputed, numbers are estimated to range from several hundred to thousands, with thousands more wounded. The international community and human rights organizations condemned the massacre but the Chinese government continued with the arrests of protesters and supporters of the movement. They suppressed more protests around China and expelled foreign journalists in order to control the coverage of the events. Officials who were believed to be sympathetic to the movement were demoted or purged, while police and security forces were strengthened. Progress within the government to promote more liberalized policies was halted, and the movement to end authoritarianism in China instead strengthened it.

The infamous Great Firewall of China is a combination of legislative actions that regulate internet access domestically. It’s actually called the “Golden Shield Project” by the Bureau of Public Information and Network Security Supervision. It falls under the “one country, two systems” principle, which means China’s special administrative regions like Hong Kong and Macau are not affected, but the internet use in those regions are still closely monitored. The firewall blocks a number of foreign sites, including Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, and Twitter. As a result, access to foreign information sources, internet tools, and mobile apps are limited, and companies are required to adhere to China’s strict internet regulations. China spends about one hundred eighty billion dollars a year on “domestic security.” This includes surveillance, police, and censorship tools. In 2014, a new government body called the Cyberspace Administration of China was established to be directly under President Xi Jinping’s control. This body exercises its control over the internet as a tool for surveillance and suppression. China’s tech giants used to rely on a combination of simple blacklists of banned words and teams of manual reviewers. They’re still in use, but big Chinese tech companies now have more powerful automation to help identify what to block. Tiananmen-related online content is blocked year-round in China, and for decades textbooks and state media have ignored and re-characterized the event to what’s now referred to as “the June fourth incident.” Each year’s anniversary shows signs that Chinese tech companies and the government are more meticulously policing the web. China’s popular search engine Baidu and social media platform WeChat block Tiananmen-related posts and webpages to comply with internet rules. Researchers from the University of Toronto reverse-engineered WeChat, revealing the code in a section of the app that filters images and detects banned images even if they’ve been edited. If a user tries to send the famous photo of “Tank Man” from the protests, the message may never actually reach its recipients. Since 2017, China has increased its crackdown on VPN providers and users, sending many to prison. Apple was forced to remove hundreds of VPN apps from their app store, but still, the number of citizens using VPNs is increasing.

According to Bloomberg, “in the first quarter of 2019, 35% of Chinese web users utilized a VPN, up from 31% two years ago, according to market research firm GlobalWebIndex. That compares with 60% of web users in Indonesia, the highest share of VPN users globally, and 22% in the US. More than half of Chinese VPN users do so for routine activities such as accessing better music and TV shows; 41% of them use VPNs to access social networks or blocked news sites.”

More and more Chinese citizens are breaking through the firewall to fight the censorship and communicate with other like-minded digital dissidents. Using open-source coding platforms like Github, and encrypted messaging services like Telegram and Signal, some are able to stay ahead of the Great Firewall, which continues to grow taller and wider. Some are now operating platforms that re-publish blocked social media posts, browsers that allow access to blocked sites, and blockchain based messaging that prevent controversial posts from being removed. Groups of activists are even teaching members of the persecuted Uighur Muslim-minority how to use encrypted messaging to speak with human rights groups.

US companies operating within China, like Apple and Microsoft, are helping the government censor information. The content deemed “sensitive” by the government is kept off Bing search results and LinkedIn. Other than removing hundreds of VPN apps, Apple curates its app store differently than anywhere else in the world to comply with the firewall. Human rights groups are accusing the companies of helping the government suppress rights. Lawmakers in the US and Europe have also criticized US companies for playing along with the censorship. In April, it was reported that Apple removed songs that mention political topics from Apple Music, including a song by Hong Kong pop star Jacky Chung that referenced the Tiananmen Square protests. Apple declined to comment on the reports of the music’s removal, prompting lawmakers to call the compliance disgraceful.

As we’ve reported before, Google was testing a search engine known as “Dragonfly” that would comply with the strict censorship rules of the Chinese government. The project caused an uproar within the company, with many protesting and petitioning for its development to end. Google actually used to operate within China until 2010, then stopped over concerns that the government was increasing its censorship of online speech too much.
One of the most prominent Chinese-born political cartoonists has been hiding behind anonymity for years to protect himself against repercussions from the government. Today, he revealed his identity. Badiucao is a thirty-three-year-old artist now living in Australia who circulates his work online through social media. He has been compared to Banksy because of the political commentary in his art that satirize Beijing’s leaders. Despite threats from the Chinese government, he stepped out of the shadows to show his face.

In the past, Badiucao would cover his face when he had to appear in public, or sometimes cross-dress to conceal his identity. Despite taking these measures, Chinese authorities figured out his identity and he was forced to cancel an exhibition in Hong Kong over threats to his loved ones. Badiucao believes his identity was realized through digital surveillance while preparing the exhibition in Hong Kong.

According to Reuters, Badiucao said, “I’m facing this major choice: to be silent forever, or to fight back, to confront, face to face, this situation. By stepping out on the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre I don’t think there’s any better time for me to do that.”
The canceled art exhibition in Hong Kong was called “Gongle,” stylized to parody Google, but based on a phrase that translates to “singing for Communism.” The show included drawings celebrating a series of street protests known as the “Umbrella Movement” against China’s interference in Hong Kong’s electoral system in 2014. It featured an image portraying Xi Jinping as Winnie the Pooh in a meme-reference mocking the leader’s appearance. The meme is blocked in China. He also made pictures of Google CEO Sundar Pichai wearing a “Make Wall Great Again” hat, referencing the Great Firewall and the Dragonfly search engine.

Badiucao seeks to reveal the truth about June fourth through art, and said, “In order to pass down memory, it’s always about the next generation, how to engage them, how to awaken them from this kind of political indifference. The physical body can be crushed or damaged, but the spirit lives for much longer. I hope within my art and within my action [there] will be a way to pass on the spirit of ‘89.”
It’s been thirty years since the protests against the authoritarian policies of the Chinese government, the surveillance and censorship has gotten worse, and people are still intimidated and jailed for simple expressions of dissent. It’s a stark reminder that even though we certainly don’t have it bad here in the US, we still need to closely monitor the actions of our governments and tech companies to ensure our freedom of expression does not become compromised. We will continue to update you with news on topics like this, so be sure to stay tuned for more videos every Monday through Thursday. But soon, we’ll have videos every day. You can help make this possible by supporting our work and sharing our videos.

Dissident Chinese cartoonist shows his face on Tiananmen anniversary
digital dissidents fighting chinese censorship machine
US companies help censor internet in china

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