Why You Can’t Read This Story If You’re In China Today

Twenty-five years later, Chinese citizens can’t “google” the word “candle” because it would bring up images of Hong Kong’s annual vigil (above) commemorating those killed in the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. CREDIT: AP PHOTO — KIN CHEUNG
Twenty-five years later, Chinese citizens can’t “google” the word “candle” because it would bring up images of Hong Kong’s annual vigil (above) commemorating those killed in the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. CREDIT: AP PHOTO — KIN CHEUNG

Just days ahead of the 25th Tiananmen Square anniversary Wednesday, Chinese authorities shut down several Google sites and services in their latest effort to scrub the Internet of the pro-democracy protests that turned fatal in on June 4, 1989.

Google’s search engine, GMail, Google Calendar and its language translation service were all blocked as early as last week, according to GreatFire.org, a censorship watchdog that first reported the matter. The block has spanned at least four days, compared to last year’s 12 hour black-out, and targets 64 search terms such as “tank” and “rebellion.” It may be China’s strongest attempt to erase the Tiananmen Massacre from public memory.

The ban reveals the lengths to which the country will go to quell discussion of the military crackdown that ended the unprecedented occupation of Tiananmen Square beginning in April 1989. Thousands of students who flooded Tiananmen Square to mourn the death of a pro-open government official were forcefully evicted on the morning of June 4th, leading to an increased stifling of dissent in what had been a reforming China. This year, China has become increasingly aggressive in censoring online media compared to previous anniversaries. All Chinese media are barred from mentioning of the protests and the hundreds, possibly thousands, killed by the military (the government has not confirmed the exact number of casualties).

There were signs earlier this year the government was loosening its grip on online searches related to the protests. Users could search for Hu Yaobang, the purged high-level official whose death sparked the Tiananmen protests, and social media, blogging and news sites openly commemorated his death. However, search terms such as “June 4” and “Tiananmen Square” were still banned and the latest round of suppression has erased those gains. “This is by far the biggest attack on Google that’s ever taken place in China,” a co-founder of GreatFire.org told The New York Times. “Probably the only thing comparable is when the Chinese government first started blocking websites in the 1990s.”

The decision to censor the events of June 4th go beyond just mentioning the massacre, extending to when a potentially controversial event happens near Tiananmen Square. Officials concealed images and online articles in October after a jeep barreled into a crowd in Tiananmen Square, injuring dozens and killing five people. Chinese officials clamped down further in September when posting derogatory remarks on blogs and online forums was criminalized. Violators face up to three years in jail if negative posts attract at least 5,000 page views or are shared more than 500 times.

The Chinese government reacted similarly in 2011 to the pro-democracy “Jasmine Revolution” online protests that called for citizens to silently walk the streets holding a jasmine flower. The government banned the users from searching the term “jasmine”, blocked the characters for “jasmine” in text messages, and blocked GMail access.

But this year’s blackout may be partly thwarted by Google’s new worldwide encryption program that crippled China’s censorship and surveillance efforts. Google previously showed an anti-censorship warning message that alerted Chinese users that the information they were searching for was blocked or would disrupt their Internet connection.

Still, Beijing’s tactic to whitewash the Internet of unsavory opinions and historical events has, in some ways, worked. Many of China’s millennials who grew up with the Internet typically know nothing of the military crackdown, and do little to circumvent censorship surrounding it. Helen Gao, a Beijing-based journalist, bemoaned the apathy of her well-informed peers:

The massacre of 1989, the most recent tragedy of all, is also the most forgotten: One of the first victims of the massacre, Jiang Jielian, was a junior at my high school. While his mother, Ding Zilin, and other mothers of the victims, are still seeking justice for the death of their sons and daughters, Jiang’s name is known to few of my classmates…Well-educated and worldly, they nonetheless see censorship more as a nuisance of daily life, something to be begrudgingly endured, rather than an infringement on their freedom of speech.

Even as the Web expands and citizens demand freedom online, governments worldwide have ramped up efforts to censor the Internet to prevent political uproar. About 30 countries have tightened press freedom since 2009, according to a recent Freedom House report. And despite a global call for Internet freedom, more than a third of countries put strict restrictions on online speech, the democracy watchdog agency found.

Regardless of the government’s efforts, there are still a growing number of Chinese citizens who want to push for change. Seventy-five percent of China’s journalism students call for less censorship, according to an anonymous academic poll of 108 students in Shantou University’s journalism program. With so much fervor behind the idea of a free and open Internet, China’s attempt to hide Tiananmen’s history may eventually become futile.