Tea Leaf Nation

China Is Exporting Its Tiananmen Censorship, and We Are All Victims

Twenty-six years after the killing of student protesters, the code of silence is spreading worldwide.

<> on March 3, 2014 in Beijing, China.
<> on March 3, 2014 in Beijing, China.

When I was considering whether to write a book on the legacy of the Tiananmen Square massacre, I had to weigh the possibility of being banned from the country that had been home for a decade. It was where I met my husband and where our two children were born. We had never considered living anywhere else. And China was at the heart of my professional life. But the more I thought about being blacklisted, the clearer my path became.

After all, fear of that blacklist is an important tool employed by Beijing — along with intimidation, repression, and the lure of the Chinese market — to stifle discussion both domestically and internationally about the deadly suppression of protests on June 4, 1989. As we mark the 26th anniversary, there are signs it is working.

China’s code of silence is reaching beyond its borders. In the past year, a multinational corporation and a sovereign country have enabled that silence by turning freedom of speech into a commodity to be traded in order to safeguard ties with the world’s second-largest economy.

In late May, a new line was crossed when two prominent Hong Kong figures were blacklisted not by China, but by Malaysia, for trying to speak publicly about June 4. Student activist Joshua Wong and lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung — popularly known as Long Hair — had been invited to give talks on the Tiananmen crackdown. They were refused entry at the border and sent back to Hong Kong. The country’s police chief said it was necessary to avoid jeopardizing Malaysian ties with China.

Corporations solicitous of China’s growing economic clout also help export its censorship. In June 2014, the social networking service LinkedIn began blocking Tiananmen-related articles posted inside China or by members hosted by its Chinese site. A company spokesman said the move was taken “to create value for our members in China and around the world.” The impact, he said, was “very, very small.” However, freedom of speech cannot be measured in degrees. Through its acquiescence, this company headquartered in California is acting as Beijing’s censor.

LinkedIn is by no means the only tech company to bow to China. Skype’s Chinese version, a joint venture with Hong Kong company TOM Online, automatically intercepts texts including sensitive phrases like “Tiananmen Slaughter” and “’89.” In 2012, a Chinese court sentenced poet Zhu Yufu to seven years in jail, after he sent a poem called “The Square” using Skype.

Inside U.S. universities, the notion of a blacklist has a chilling effect. The best-known scholars of Tiananmen, Perry Link and Andrew Nathan, who co-edited The Tiananmen Papers, have been refused Chinese visas, as have other U.S.-based scholars working on Xinjiang and Tibet. Yet who knows how many other scholars have steered away from “sensitive” topics for fear of losing access to China. As Jeremy Brown, a historian writing a book on Tiananmen, pointed out in an email to me, “By even asking or considering the question, the feared ‘blacklist’ of banned scholars has served its purpose and starts to win. That’s really bad for academic inquiry.”

Journalists, too, are subject to intimidation. In May 2013, I conducted a crude survey to gauge how much today’s students know about June 4. I showed 100 students from four different Beijing universities the iconic photo of “Tank Man,” the skinny young man facing down a column of tanks on the Avenue of Everlasting Peace. Eighty-five percent of them could not identify the picture.

A year later, a French camera crew repeated this experiment on a Beijing street. Within 10 minutes, police had detained them. During six hours of questioning, their interrogator told them, “You know that the topic is very sensitive, and the government doesn’t want people to speak about it.” They were warned their visas could be cancelled.

The security apparatus took even more care to intimidate those who might potentially talk to foreign journalists summoning activists to “drink tea” and receive warnings. More than 150 people were reportedly detained, put under house arrest, or questioned in the run-up to the 2014 anniversary — at least 13 remain in detention. Those who failed to heed the warnings were punished, including Australian artist Guo Jian, who was detained — then deported — after giving an interview to the Financial Times. The message was clear: Stay silent or pay the price.

Beijing’s moves to limit discussion of June 4 reveal its insecurities. This year, one state-run Chinese newspaper broke the customary silence on Tiananmen to denounce an open letter written by Chinese students overseas, accusing the letter-writers of being brainwashed by hostile foreign forces. “Chinese society has reached a consensus on not debating the 1989 incident,” it wrote. The editorial was quickly removed from the Chinese Internet (though the English version is still live); such invective only serves to remind citizens of an episode Beijing has worked to erase from the collective memory.

This year has been quiet, too quiet. While the 26th anniversary is not a symbolic one, the absence of noise is ominous. One reason, Sharon Hom from Human Rights in China posits, is a loss of hope; given President Xi Jinping’s hard line, fewer activists are willing to sacrifice themselves “like eggs against the wall,” she wrote in an email. Those still willing to speak out find new curbs further limiting their activity. The most vocal are The Tienanmen Mothers, a group of relatives, friends, and supporters of those who died on June 4, 1989. In their open letter this year, they describe new “all-encompassing” surveillance including bugging devices placed in the homes of certain members.

Over the past year, the political calendar has been rewritten anew. Summer — and the run-up to June 4 — is no longer detention season. The new normal is a permanent state of repression that has swept lawyers, human rights defenders, anti-corruption campaigners, Christians, even feminists into its dragnet. Commemorations of Tiananmen are sensitive year round, as shown by the fate of dissident Chen Yunfei, detained in March as he paid respects at a Tiananmen victim’s grave. He faces charges of inciting subversion of state power.

Beijing’s behavior has the unintended effect of making June 4 even more urgent. Its attempts to muzzle discussion of 1989 reflect both the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s moral vulnerability and its continuing reliance on brute force.

When I finally decided to write a book about Tiananmen, it was because I could. My interviewees did not have that option, and entrusted me to tell their stories. I left China in the summer of 2013 to write my book and have no plans to return. But the reality that Beijing’s Tiananmen omertà is now spreading beyond Chinese borders should concern us all. Those of us who enjoy the right of free speech should use it to raise our voices against the crime of silence.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Louisa Lim, the author of “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited,” is Senior Lecturer in Audiovisual Journalism at the University of Melbourne.

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