Journalists Hassled, Social Media Censored as China Marks Tiananmen Square Anniversary

The Chinese government went into media control overdrive during the 24th anniversary of the bloody suppression of pro-democracy activists in 1989.

HONG KONG – The Chinese state security apparatus went into overdrive in its surveillance of both broadcast journalists and social media users today, as the country marked the 24th anniversary of the bloody clampdown on the pro-democracy movement in Beijing in 1989.

For the second day in a row, public security officials went out of the way to interfere with Hong Kong reporters stationed in the Chinese capital.

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A report aired on Television Broadcast Limited (TVB), the biggest terrestrial station in Hong Kong, said uniformed policemen stopped their press car as they arrived to report on the daily flag-raising ceremony at the square. An officer called on his colleague to “catch that journalist,” before searching through their car and demanding that all reporters present -- including journalists from Radio and Television Hong Kong (RTHK) and those working for another television station -- show their identity cards.

The TVB report also said an officer asked reporters to delete photographs in their cameras because the pictures “violated the privacy and rights” of the officers whose pictures were taken. While the reporters were eventually allowed to leave, the incident was seen as the latest in the authorities’ ongoing attempt to intimidate Hong Kong journalists working in Beijing during what has become the most politically sensitive day on the calendar.

On Monday, uniformed officers visited the same TVB reporter in her office and “invited” her to a meeting at the neighborhood government office near her Beijing residence, during which she was “reminded” of the need for journalists to file an application before conducting any interviews or simply shooting any footage on the streets.

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While Hong Kong media outlets continued to carry reports commemorating the “June 4 Incident” -- the expression now largely used to describe the Chinese authorities’ bloody suppression in 1989 of the pro-democracy activists in Beijing and also several major cities across the country -- media in mainland China, which were given extra scrutiny by the government, continued a near-complete blackout.

The state-enforced censorship drive was most frenetic online, where the country’s “network police” went into overdrive to delete any post on Weibo (the country's answer to Twitter) that made even the vaguest reference to the clampdown.

While entries bearing the most obvious phrases such as “1989,” “64” (standing in for June 4th) and “Tiananmen Square” were immediately struck off, even the innocuous-looking term “big yellow duck” was deemed non grata, thanks to the wide circulation of a  doctored version of the now-legendary “Tank Man” photograph, according to a report on the Wall Street Journal.

In the original iconic photo, a solitary man is seen standing before a row of tanks rolling down Beijing’s Chang’an Boulevard after the clampdown on June 4, 1989. In the new version -- posted online by an anonymous blogger -- the tanks are replaced by giant yellow rubber ducks, a reference to the giant duck that has been floating in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor -- created by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman -- and which has become a massive tourist attraction in the southern Chinese city.

Attempting to justify its now-notorious attempts at censoring dissent online, the government-backed Global Times newspaper ran an op-ed article on Tuesday titled, “Web regulation in public’s best interest,” which attempted to claim that "regulation" of the Internet is common around the world, by highlighting the recent German Federal Court of Justice’s ruling that called for Google to rein in its autocomplete function because of the way it occasionally suggests results that are defamatory (for example: a search for scientology might suggest 'scientology is a cult'). 

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Disregarding the fundamental differences between the German court ruling and the internet censorship practiced by the state of China -- the German judgment did not call for pre-vetting of online search terms, but merely the cessation of unprompted defamatory search suggestions -- the article used the German case as a jumping-off point to support the Chinese government’s control of online content, saying that: “Some claim that any regulation of the Internet is an anti-democratic effort. This deceptive voice has gained support from Western public opinion, which makes China's regulation of the Internet encounter more resistance than in other countries. … China's mainstream society needs to form a firm consensus that such regulation is necessary for Chinese society.”

“Most Chinese are looking forward to free speech on the Internet, while at the same time are expecting an orderly social environment,” the article continued. “People already understand that free speech can not go against social order. Internet regulation is not only an embodiment of the government's will, but is also laid on the foundation of the public interest.”

That view did not appear to gel with China’s burgeoning and increasingly savvy online community, however. While nationalist zeal does burn like wildfire in certain quarters of the Chinese blogosphere -- a situation illustrated best by the scores of chest-thumping comments made in praise of recent Chinese box office hit American Dreams in China, a film that concludes with three Chinese cram school millionaires gaining the upper hand over arrogant U.S. entrepreneurs -- there were also waves of Weibo users who persisted in their attempts to sneak their June 4-related comments past online censors.

A common approach was to conceal the date of the incident within entries pertaining to talk about completely apolitical matters. A blogger who goes by the name of “Natural Order” posted a comment saying how, “Today, on June 4, the Shanghai stock exchange opened at 2,346.98 points” -- the figure containing "89-6-4" backwards.

Others took a more philosophical approach to paying small tribute to the anniversary. While making his daily report on the distribution of various film screenings on June 4, the operator of the much visited Dianyingpiaofang (“Movie Box Office”) Weibo account began his usual, quite technical analysis, by saying how “history is always repeating itself.”