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Tiananmen Square, black shirt, big yellow duck, and other banned terms

Posting in Government

June 4th was the 24th anniversary of a government crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing when troops with tanks and assault rifles forcibly suppressed student protesters who had set up camp in Tiananmen Square.

In recent years, the date has come to mark an annual face-off, pitting Chinese Internet users eager to memorialize the 1989 massacre against China’s sprawling online censorship apparatus, Wall Street Journal reports.

In China, Internet searches for "Tiananmen Square" turn up nothing. There’s very little mention of it on Sina Weibo -- China's Twitter-equivalent -- where people are increasingly turning to speak their minds. Even in an age when the Chinese are finding their voices, silence is enforced on the topic, officially and electronically:

  • Censors hand-deleted Tiananmen-related images, even blocking searches for "big yellow duck." That's because the iconic Tank Man photo has been reimagined with ducks (like the one in Hong Kong's harbor), as well as Legos and Angry Birds.
  • "Today" and "June 4th" were blocked on the anniversary. If a user searches for those terms, they get: "according to relevant law, regulation and policy, search results are not displayed," CBS reports.
  • "Black shirt" was blocked. A prominent dissident asked mainland Chinese to wear black to mark the anniversary. (He used Twitter, which is accessible through software that circumvents censors.)
  • According to GreatFire.org, which monitors Chinese censorship, searches for "6 4" briefly topped Weibo's list of search terms on Tuesday morning.
  • Candle images to express mourning were removed from icons posted on microblogs.
  • Also blocked: "that day," "special day," "massacre," "89," according to China Digital Times.
  • For a few days, previously blocked searches suddenly began to produce innocuous, carefully selected results.
  • When stories come up about the anniversary on news channels like CNN and BBC (available on satellite TV), screens go black -- returning only with coverage of benign topics.

Despite censorship and downplay, interest remains high among social media users. Weibo users posted comments noting the arrival of dark clouds over Beijing around noon on Tuesday. Another user adds: “This seems to mean that something happened in the past, but I can’t search for it.”

Although, CBS explains, there are ways:

Anyone in China can get around the "Great Firewall" by shelling out roughly $6 per month for a "VPN," or "virtual private network," which allows a web user to connect to the Internet as though he or she is in another country.

[Via WSJ, CBS, Businessweek, Atlantic]

Image: Derzsi Elekes Andor via Wikimedia

— By on June 5, 2013, 7:32 AM PST

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure