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It was a Friday evening in May in the Nanxi district of Yippin, a Chinese city of around 4.5 million people, when Deng Chuanbin posted a picture of a bottle of wine on Twitter.
The bottle’s label featured the word “ba jiu,” a near homophone of “89,” and below it was an image depicting the iconic Tiananmen Square “Tank Man.”
Deng, a documentary filmmaker who has in the past worked with well-known Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, then thought better of it and quickly deleted the image. But the damage was done; within 30 minutes, the police were at his door. They confiscated his phones and computers, and arrested him. He’s been in detention ever since.
Deng is one of at least 27 activists, artists, and netizens who have been detained, questioned or disappeared since the start of May, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a coalition of Chinese and international human rights NGOs. Their offense: “picking quarrels” — a charge the Chinese government levels at those who dare to even reference the Tiananmen Square protests. These 27 are “likely just a drop in the bucket” of all those affected, the group said Monday.
The Chinese military killed as many as 10,000 people during Beijing’s vicious crackdown on pro-democracy protesters 30 years ago. But today, those victims and the horrific events of June 4, 1989, in Tiananmen Square have been virtually wiped from China’s collective memory. Beijing has achieved this mass erasure through an unprecedented crackdown on all forms of public speech in the streets and online, relying on advanced technology to automate much of their efforts while detaining people like Deng for making the smallest reference.
This year, those tools have been working in overdrive, focusing primarily on the dissident movement’s last refuge: the internet.
Since real-world protests are far too dangerous, the internet has replaced the public square as the primary space for protest. But as government censors have become more sophisticated, activists who remember the massacre have increasingly had to rely on obscure memes, gifs, and coded references that new generations simply don’t understand.
Now, even these dissident voices are being crushed under China’s vicelike grip on its internet — denying younger generations a visceral reminder of Tiananmen Square.
“You need some inspiration from the past to motivate you to pursue a higher goal, but young people don't have the references,” Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch, told VICE News. “A lot of people from my generation don't even know this existed.”
Expanding the Great Firewall
The creation of China’s Great Firewall — the world’s most advanced online censorship and surveillance system — is rooted in the government’s efforts to erase the memory of the Tiananmen protests.
“In the wake of June 4th, both activists and the government saw the potential the internet could have had for signal-boosting the messages of the protesters, and for undermining the government's efforts to control the narrative of the massacre,” James Griffiths, author of “The Great Firewall of China,” told VICE News.
Having successfully eradicated all mention of the events of June 4 from its history books and classrooms, the Chinese government has for years focused on expanding its firewall.
Today it blocks access to sites such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, and about 10,000 other domains, while its censors employ a blacklist of over 300 words that are automatically scrubbed from the internet.
Search for anything to do with Tiananmen Square inside China’s borders and you will draw a blank. In fact, you can’t even access Wikipedia; it’s been blocked in all languages. Search China’s version of it — called Baidu Baike — for 1989 and you will get results like “the number between 1988 and 1990” and “the name of a Taylor Swift album.”
“The result is a collective amnesia,” Peter Singer, an expert in Chinese cyberoperations, told VICE News. “An entire generation not just engineered to be ignorant of key moments in the past, but with nowhere to go to search out more information if they ever do become aware of it.”
“The result is a collective amnesia”
But Chinese authorities aren’t stopping there. Beijing this week forced popular social media platform Weibo to shut off its commenting function ahead of the anniversary, while also blocking users from outside the country from logging on to the platform. Weibo has also removed the candle emoji that has been used in the past as a way of remembering the Tiananmen Square anniversary.
Employees at a number of China’s top tech companies told Reuters last week how artificial intelligence is being deployed systematically to take content deemed inappropriate off the internet as soon as it is posted. This AI, accompanied by an army of human censors employed by all Chinese tech companies at the direction of the Chinese government, makes it virtually impossible to talk about Tiananmen Square without fear that what happened to Deng will happen to you.
There are indications that the Chinese government may even be extending its efforts outside its own borders after Twitter — which is already blocked in China — suspended a host of Chinese-language accounts identified as “anti-CCP [Chinese Communist Party].” Twitter claimed it didn’t take the actions at the behest of the government, and suspended the accounts by mistake.
“The overall repression is getting worse,” Wang said. “People are getting punished more severely for free speech, that is just the general environment.”
“The overall repression is getting worse”
Beijing’s brutal crackdown has had a chilling effect across all forms of speech and has created a pervasive culture of self-censorship, activists told VICE News.
“One of the most effective methods of censorship is that many people believe they must self-censor,” one of the co-founders of GreatFire.org, an organization that tracks China’s online censorship, told VICE News, using the pseudonym Charlie Smith.
Despite the overwhelming pressure applied by China’s online censorship regime, people continue to fight back online, primarily by finding novel ways to reference Tiananmen that evade authorities.
The Weiboscope project, which has been documenting how Chinese citizens have been marking the anniversary online since 2012, has reviewed 700,000 posts from tens of thousands of accounts.
In April, they released an archive of 1,000 images that show how far people will go to mark the occasion.
Scrolling through the archive, you will find giant rubber ducks (or cigarette packets or Lego men) replacing the tanks in the iconic Tank Man image. You'll see Michael Jackson standing in front of tanks, or a praying mantis with its arms raised facing down a giant tire.
“Every time the citizens will find some way to express their view, to represent June 4 in a subtle way that the machines cannot catch,” Fu King Wa, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Hong Kong who runs the Weiboscope project, said.
But these efforts are lost on a younger generation that lacks a deep enough understanding of what happened in Tiananmen Square to interpret the messages in these images.
“The Great Firewall likely will never be 100 percent iron-tight, but it has become increasingly difficult to bypass”
Beyond coded messages, there are also technological ways to circumvent the Great Firewall, with the most popular being virtual private networks (VPNs), which allow users to appear to be located outside China. But these are increasingly being shut down, with the government banning the illegal selling of VPN services and sending those defying its rules to jail. Apple drew criticism from activists in 2017 when it bent to Beijing’s will and removed hundreds of VPN apps from its App Store.
While lone voices are likely to continue to get past the censors, without the ability to coordinate their efforts, building anything like the scale of the protest movement in 1989 will be almost impossible.
“The Great Firewall likely will never be 100 percent iron tight, but it has become increasingly difficult to bypass and is already completely effective at its main purpose: blocking collective action and the spreading of solidarity,” Griffiths said.
But for all the efforts made to erase what happened in Tiananmen Square from the internet and its citizens’ collective memory, Beijing’s reach only goes so far. As more and more young Chinese citizens travel abroad, there is still some hope of Tiananmen’s history remaining alive
“What the government wants to do is for the people to have collective amnesia about the event,” said Patrick Poon, a China expert at Amnesty International. “But because so many people can travel overseas, and be exposed to information, what the government is doing may not be something that can be ultimately successful.”
Cover: In this June 3, 1989 file photo, a young woman is caught between civilians and Chinese soldiers, who were trying to remove her from an assembly near the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Over seven weeks in 1989, the student-led pro-democracy protests centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square became China’s greatest political upheaval since the end of the decade-long Cultural Revolution more than a decade earlier.(AP Photo/Jeff Widener, File)