China Tightens Media Controls on 25th Anniversary of Tiananmen Square Crackdown

Tiananmen Square Tank Man 1989 - H 2014
AP Photo/Jeff Widener

Tiananmen Square Tank Man 1989 - H 2014

Social media and traditional outlets alike have been blocked to ensure there are no public displays of dissent on the anniversary of the massacre.

China’s annual strictly enforced collective amnesia kicked into overdrive Wednesday to mark the 25th anniversary of the bloody crackdown on democracy demonstrators on Tiananmen Square and all around China on June 4, 1989.

The mainstream media were extremely quiet about the event, not mentioning the date in question.

The Beijing News daily had a story about the poor quality of toilet paper as its lead story – could this have been a cunning political comment? -- while the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, had a story about President Xi Jinping visiting a factory.

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Outside the window on Chang’an Avenue, People’s Armed Police and other security officers were on duty, accompanied by armored vehicles, while Tiananmen Square itself, a vast concourse overlooked by the portrait of founding father Chairman Mao Zedong on the Forbidden City, was largely sealed off by a heavy uniformed and plain-clothes security presence.

The Chinese government insists the crackdown was necessary to ensure stability, and say that without it, China would not enjoy its current economic rise. It is critical of Western media outlets for focusing on the anniversary of the crackdown every year, saying that China has improved human rights by raising the standard of living.

On this day 25 years ago, People’s Liberation Army tanks and troops rolled through the streets of the Chinese capital and other cities, picking off student activists and peasant supporters of change from the countryside.

Hundreds, possibly thousands were killed. Early casualty figures from the Chinese Red Cross put the dead at 2,600, but the Chinese government says 241 died. Establishing how many people perished has not been made any easier by the fact that the government has banned any investigation into what happened.

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The government’s tight grip on information has been successful to some degree, as many young people are unaware that anything took place on that fateful day a quarter century ago.

News reports on the BBC – which is available only in hotels and foreigner compounds anyway -- are blocked out, leading to surreal black screens, and the sound is out of synch, so that the powers-that-be can pull the plug whenever they need to.

The government has been rounding up dissenting voices in the run-up, and journalists were warned off going to the square on the anniversary. Google has been badly affected, with Gmail often not working and the search engine incredibly slow.

This is due in part to increased terror activity by Xinjiang separatists, which has led to a spate of dreadful attacks around China, but the deployment is aimed at ensuring Tiananmen Square does not become a focus for dissent on the 25th anniversary.

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The human rights group Amnesty International said at least 66 people have been detained in connection with the anniversary, and major Chinese Internet sites censor references to the event.

Among those arrested were a group of intellectuals who gathered in Beijing to discuss the events of a quarter of a century ago.

The group included Hao Jian, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy; civil rights lawyer Pu Zhijiang; Beijing University lecturer Hu Shigen; researcher Xu Youyu; and writer Liu Di.

The Australian national Guo Jian, who was born in China but holds an Aussie passport, was picked up too. Gao angered authorities with his 2014 installation The Square, which is a model of Beijing's Tiananmen Square covered in 350 pounds of minced pork.

An op-ed in the Global Times newspaper by a former London municipal official, John Ross, who now teaches at Renmin University, attacked the United States for being critical of China’s human rights record and urged the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a resolution congratulating China for its unequaled contribution to human well-being in lifting more than 600 million people out of poverty.

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“The real problem about China for U.S. neo-cons and their followers is that China's national revival makes it strong,” Ross wrote. “China's contribution to the real well-being of humanity is not only greater than the United States but is unmatched by any other country in the world.”

Another op-ed in the print edition of the paper did not mention Tiananmen Square but did say “25 years on, society firmer about its path.”

In Hong Kong, which enjoys press freedom as part of the terms in which the territory was returned to China in 1997, there was wide-scale coverage of the anniversary, and 180,000 people gathered in Victoria Park for a candlelight vigil to commemorate the event.