China‘s human and robot censors have ramped up their efforts to silence any mention of the Tiananmen Square protests ahead of the 30th anniversary of one of the bloodiest crackdowns in Chinese history.
China has never released an official death toll from the incident, and all critical discussion of it has been banned from public life. The state rolls out a sweeping censorship campaign every year ahead of the June 4 anniversary and has even gone so far as to scrub the word “today” from its internet on significant anniversaries.
“Those in power can easily manipulate history and twist our memory,” former protester Rowena Xiaoqing He told the Associated Press. He, who now teaches a course on Tiananmen at Harvard University, says it’s impossible to understand today’s China without understanding what happened on June 4, 1989.
“That kind of manipulation and suppression of history is always followed by distortion of all kinds — social, political, psychological,” He said.
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The ruling Communist Party has never fully acknowledged the massacre. On June 3 and 4, 1989, 180,000 troops and armed police marched into Tiananmen Square in Beijing and crushed a student protest calling for democratic reform following the death of a progressive leader in the Communist Party.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of people were killed. The protest ended soon after the shooting started.
China is taking its censorship campaign to new heights ahead of the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, according to critics and several censors who spoke anonymously to Reuters and the Associated Press.
“They are certainly nervous,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. “Under (President) Xi Jinping, no stone will be left unturned.”
AI censors make it impossible to discuss Tiananmen Square in China
Human censors who spoke to Reuters say China is rolling out cutting-edge artificial intelligence that can scrub unwanted content from its closed-off version of the internet while spotting dissent much faster than a human censor ever could.
“We sometimes say that the artificial intelligence is a scalpel, and a human is a machete,” said a content-screening employee at Beijing ByteDance Co. Ltd., one of the state-influenced internet companies in China. The employee asked Reuters not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Two employees at the company say AI is largely responsible for censoring the Tiananmen incident along with other sensitive issues, such as mentions of Taiwan and Tibet. AI tools search for and remove remove a wide range of related content including posts that allude to dates, images or names associated with the offending topics.
For example, the numbers six and four, when combined, are treated as dissenting content because they might reference June 4. The combination “89” is also treated as a potential reference to Tiananmen.
“We have a basic list of keywords, which include the 1989 details, but (AI) can more easily select those,” another anonymous censor, who works for the search engine Baidu, told Reuters.
Four men from Hong Kong were convicted in April of “inciting subversion of a state power” by designing an alcohol label commemorating the Tiananmen massacre, according to the Hong Kong Free Press. The label featured a play on words that hinted at the number 8-9-6-4, or 1989, June 4.
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Filmmaker Deng Chuanbin was arrested last month after he tweeted a photo of one of the bottles.
China bans a wide range of content, from the iconic “Tank Man” photo to a hand of playing cards arranged in the order “8, 9, 6, 4,” according to a database of its censored posts. The database, called Weiboscope, was compiled by researchers at the University of Hong Kong.
In addition to filtering content, Chinese companies have also made it harder to discuss certain topics in the open. For example, Bilibili, a Chinese video-streaming site, has taken down its popular real-time commenting feature until June 6 for “system upgrades.”
No one can post anonymously in China
Even if someone wanted to share the truth about Tiananmen Square in China, it’s almost impossible to do so without facing punishment. The only somewhat safe place is semi-autonomous Hong Kong, where some elements of democracy remain in place.
The Cyberspace Administration of China has introduced new rules that make it illegal to “falsify” the history of the Communist Party with dissenting content. The state decides what’s false, and offending platforms can face lengthy suspensions that cut them off from the Chinese market, while individuals can be fined or jailed for spreading sensitive information online.
China has also made it extremely difficult to get away with posting content anonymously online. All social media accounts must be linked to real names and national ID numbers by law, and companies must provide that information to the authorities upon request.
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China leaning on tech companies to help with censorship
The Chinese government has forced several international tech companies to play by its rules around Tiananmen Square, including Twitter and Apple.
Twitter announced Saturday that it had suspended several accounts for engaging in “platform manipulation,” including “commentary about China.” The company said it was a “routine action” after many critics in the U.S. accused it of bowing to Beijing’s censorship demands.
Apple has also kowtowed to China’s wishes by removing artists and songs that refer to the Tiananmen Square massacre. One of the bands, a Hong Kong duo called Tat Ming Pair, released a Tiananmen tribute last month called “Remembering is a Crime.”
At least 13 people, including several artists, have been detained or taken away from their homes in connection with the anniversary, according to advocates with the Chinese Human Rights Defenders.
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How China justifies censoring Tiananmen Square
The Tiananmen Square incident put China on its current course of repression and strict state control, according to Zhang Lifan, who was a scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 1989.
“The June 4 incident changed the direction of Chinese history,” he told the Associated Press. “The narrative that China would grow strong and normal, become a stable country through the process of political reform, was destroyed.”
The Communist Party says it became strong and stable precisely because it stopped the “turmoil” in Tiananmen Square.
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“As a vaccination for the Chinese society, the Tiananmen incident will greatly increase China’s immunity against any major political turmoil in the future,” the Communist Party’s official newspaper, the Global Times, wrote in an English editorial published Monday. The editorial describes Tiananmen as a “faded historical event” that the country has already moved past.
“The policy of avoiding arguing has served as a contributor to the country’s economic takeoff,” the editorial says in a nod to China’s censorship policies. The editorial also accuses former student protesters and foreign media of trying to stir up trouble where there is none.
Mainland China has not been able to silence critics in Hong Kong, where more than 2,000 people marched to commemorate Tiananmen Square last month. However, the Communist Party has been mulling a new law that would make it easier to bring suspected criminals to the mainland from Hong Kong.
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March organizer Albert Ho says the law is just another step in China’s campaign to control Hong Kong and silence its democratic tradition. Ho is also chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China.
“We are facing the challenge of this (extradition law), which affects our basic freedom and liberty,” Ho told the Associated Press.
“The dedication and the commitment to fight for democracy and human rights is the only way out.”
—With files from the Associated Press