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Mass Censorship on 35th Anniversary of Tiananmen Massacre
Mass Censorship on 35th Anniversary of Tiananmen Massacre

Mass Censorship on 35th Anniversary of Tiananmen Massacre

On June 4 people across the globe, including within China, commemorated the 35th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre. Between June 3-6, 1989, the People’s Liberation Army indiscriminately killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Beijing residents to crush a student movement that had occupied Tiananmen Square in wide-ranging protests for democracy, freedom of expression, and against corruption. Commemorations of the anniversary and memorials to the victims are routinely censored on the Chinese internet. June 4 is among the most sensitive dates on the Chinese political calendar. 

Online, the breadth of censorship is breathtaking. A selection of censored terms uncovered by a Citizen Lab tool that tracks search censorship is telling. The video-sharing site Bilibili blocked all searches for “democracy, student movement.” Sogou blocked “Ha Jin, The Crazed,” a novel about the student movement. The Q&A site Baidu Zhidao screened all results for “Yaobang,” the first name of the former Party Secretary whose death sparked the movement. Weibo blocked “square, gather.” Baidu barred searches for “Chen Weiming, sculpture,” a sculptor famous for works commemorating the massacre. The e-commerce site Jingdong even blocked all searches for “international version of Douyin,” meaning TikTok, likely because uncensored information about the massacre is available on Douyin’s global sister app. The above terms make up just a fraction of censored terms. Long-standing bans on candle emojis, the numbers “8964,” tanks, objects lined up in a row, and the phrase “it’s my duty,” persist. 

The censorship has extended into China’s new AI chatbots, large language models (LLMs) designed to answer questions, among other tasks. In testing by a researcher at China Media Project, China’s leading LLM Spark, which previously got in trouble for “disparaging the great man” Mao Zedong, steadfastly refused to answer any questions about June 4 or its political background. On X (formerly Twitter), Chinese science writer Fang Zhouzi claimed that on June 3, Douyin’s AI-assisted search engine refused to answer the question: “What day is tomorrow?” 

Voice of America reported that Weibo, WeChat, Xiaohongshu and other top platforms quietly prevented users from changing their profile pictures and usernames around the anniversary. (In 2022, CDT published a leaked internal corporate guideline mandating suspension of all profile customization features in early June.) A number of video games took similar steps, including “World of Tanks” and “Game of Heroes: Three Kingdoms.” The video game “Battle of the Golden Shovel” unilaterally switched all the profile pictures from accounts that used their WeChat photo to an image of a green penguin. 

The researcher William Farris posted a long thread to X (Twitter) detailing how internet companies censor information about Tiananmen in China: 

At least two Beijing-based foreign embassies attempted to commemorate the date either online or in person. The German embassy lit candles in its windows and posted a video to Weibo with the caption: “Last night, we lit candles in the embassy’s windows.” The post was taken down by censors within 10 minutes. The United Kingdom embassy posted a video showing the gradual erasure of the front page of the June 4, 1989 edition of People’s Daily slowly until all that remained was a blank page, an echo of both the White Paper Protests and the recent blank front page of a Hong Kong newspaper published in protest against Tiananmen-related censorship. Both countries shared their since-deleted Weibo posts to X (Twitter):