Umbrellas and renovations: The not-so-subtle ways Chinese officials keep people from commemorating Tiananmen
- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is Asia editor at Foreign Policy, where he edits, reports, and writes stories from across the region. Previously a Beijing correspondent for Newsweek, Isaac wrote stories on such subjects as the Dalai Lama’s effect on international trade, China’s love affair with rogue states, and crystal meth in North Korea, a country he has visited twice. A fluent Mandarin speaker, Isaac spent seven years living in China prior to joining FP; he has traveled widely in the region and in China. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, BBC, NPR, Al-Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
On June 4, 1990, one year after Chinese soldiers massacred protesters in Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government dispatched a police convoy to pacify hundreds of demonstrators at Peking University in northwest Beijing. Instead of directly criticizing Deng Xiaoping, the students smashed little bottles intended to symbolize the Chinese leader (in Chinese, the pronunciation of Xiaoping sounds the same as the words for "little bottle").
Over the last several years, commemorations of June 4, 1989 in China have been much smaller in scale, but the oblique forms of protest remain: a newspaper publishes a cartoon that looks suspiciously like the famous photo of Tank Man, for example, or a netizen makes jokes about May 35 — the date that’s four days after May 31 if you don’t skip to June. This year, one popular Weibo post shows four giant inflatable yellow ducks (the original is an art project sitting in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor) in place of tanks in the Tank Man photo. And some are drawing renewed attention to the 1989 photo that surfaced in March (and was quickly censored) of President Xi Jinping’s wife Peng Liyuan singing for troops in the square after the crackdown. The Shenzhen-based blogger William Long tweeted a screen grab of the Sina Weibo social network blocking the search for the word "today," noting drily that "today is a big day." (China Digital Times has a good roundup of the mini-protests.)
The Chinese government, which no longer needs to seal off an entire district, as it did in 1990, has also used more subtle (OK, not always so subtle) methods to prevent the anniversary from being observed.
This year, for instance, Chairman Mao’s Memorial Hall, which sits near the center of the square, just happens to be closed for construction from June 2 to June 5, according to ABC News — presumably to reduce foot traffic to the popular memorial. And the popular Weibo candle function, often used to commemorate death, has been quietly disabled.
In 2012, the Shanghai Stock Exchange Composite Index — China’s most-watched stock index — fell 64.89 points (a number that could also be read as 6/4/89). Coincidence? Probably, as manipulating it would have been "exceedingly difficult," according to Reuters. Whatever the cause, Chinese censors blocked searches for "stock market" on Sina Weibo.
In 2010, the culprit was Foursquare, the popular location-based social network, which Chinese authorities reportedly blocked on June 4 because people were using it to "check in" to Tiananmen Square.
The most creative example I’ve come across dates back to 2009, when Chinese security officials tried to prevent a BBC correspondent from reporting on the square by opening umbrellas and obstructing camera shots. You can watch the charade below: