Commemorating June 4th


IITM CSC Article #56
5 June 2013

Commemorating June 4th

The 24th Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Incident in China has followed the traditional patterns of resistance and suppression for both dissidents/critics and the authorities respectively. The most “equal” contest between the two sides in this regard is online, as the physical space of the Tiananmen Square and other sites like the Wanan cemetery outside Beijing where some of the victims of the June 4th incident rest, are tightly controlled by the authorities. This is no way suggests that the online contest between the authorities and the critics is evenly matched, but that the online space, is the most active site for commemoration of this event in China.

One of the major concerns of the Chinese authorities is a spillover of the online critique into street protests. For this, along with the online policing, the authorities as a matter of course beef up surveillance of known dissidents and block off access to sensitive places that could act as points of mobilization.

In cyberspace, to preempt their use to commemorate the Tiananmen Incident,  the Chinese authorities routinely shut down hundreds of websites in China.  The usual message one would get in trying to access a website or content that is blocked is that the website is under maintenance. This has been co-opted in the online dissident lexicon and June 4th is referred to as China’s Internet Maintenance Day.

Along with websites being blocked, the censors also block references to June 4th Incident and related keywords on social media. Expectedly, the words Tiananmen, June 4th, Massacre Li Peng, Zhao Ziyang, are routinely blocked on websites and actively filtered on social media.   Added to this, on the morning of June 4th there was still-evolving list of nearly 40 keywords had been blocked this year. These included the following terms: June, June+4th, liusi (64), bajiu (89), twenty-fourth anniversary, candle (including the candle emoticon) Victoria park event, Szeto Wah, Black shirt event, march, tank, tankman.

This year other blocked keywords relate to the names of Chinese individuals arrested in the run up to June 4th this year suspected or accused of organizing June 4th commemorative activities. This includes the names of three individuals Li Weiguo, Xu Xiangrong, and Li Wensheng detained by the police in Guangzhou after they applied to the city authorities for a public demonstration on June 4th. It also includes the name of Bao Fu, the founder of the New Century Press in Hong Kong that publishes material banned on the Mainland.  This year, the names of these individuals became a fresh rallying point for the online community looking for ways to express dissent about June 4th. And of course, this is exactly what the government is aiming to prevent, therefore these names have been for the moment blocked by the censors.

The online community has devised inventive ways of dodging the censors to be able to post and search, banned content. For example, June 4th is referred to as May 35th, or as 63+1 or  65-1, which denotes the date June 4. The microbloggers and posters also use a combination of Roman alphabet and Chinese characters  to fox the technical censors. However, these are also picked up by the censors in due course as exemplified by the blocking of the numeral “35” as a keyword this year. All combinations of letters, numbers and characters to refer to the date of June 4th 1989 are blocked.

 As mentioned above, the government is especially concerned about online criticism turning into offline demonstrations.  Last year Shenzhen University held a ‘black shirt’ campaign to mourn the victims of the June 4th incident. The campaign involved students dressing in mourning garb to mark the event. This year the authorities issued a warning to university administration to prevent any recurrence of the same event.  The memo to university administration, as posted on China Digital Times warns, “there must be absolutely no reactionary speech, [online] forum discussions, or demonstrations. Do not go to Hong Kong next week.”

While the cat and mouse game between the online community and the censors continues throughout the year, June 4th highlights it because of international attention it attracts. The online space in China is routinely scrubbed for politically subversive content and more importantly for content that can translate into any large organized movement. This is regardless of the nature of the content and activity. The Chinese ban on Falun gong as cult is an example of this policy. The ban was imposed in 1999 following the largest demonstration at Tiananmen Square after the 1989 June 4th Incident.  In April 1999 more than ten thousand people surrounded Zhongnanhai, the seat of the senior Party leadership in Beijing staging a silent protest, demanding that the practice be recognized as legitimate within China. This was in the face of growing alarm in the government on the rapidly increasing numbers of Falun Gong followers in China. The government responded to the silent demonstration by declaring Falun Gong to be an evil cult and banned its practice in China to prevent any large parallel organization other than the Chinese Communist Party to function.

The Chinese government’s policy on suppression of any commemoration of the June 4th incident for the past two decade is similarly informed by the fear of large support base among the masses for a particular event, practice or idea. The Internet has queered the pitch for the Party in this case offering a continuous space and newer strategies for expressing dissent. The focus of the dissidents as well as the authorities has shifted, making the online space as the dominant location of contest. However, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the Chinese authorities are reasonably successful in controlling expression of dissent within the Chinese cyberspace given their political will and the technological capability to do so. Finally, the internet is not only or even dominantly a space for expressing dissent in China, an assumption that continues to underlie predictions of political collapse in China. The internet is an equally effective medium for expression of nationalistic support for the Communist Party as witnessed during China's recent territorial disputes with Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and India.

Therefore, the intensified online activity around the commemoration of the June 4th incident must be contextualised within the tight and control of the internet and even tighter control of political dissidence. This tight control reduces the commemoration of June 4th to an annual ritual that needs more than just the internet to transform into a genuine political challenge. It needs a rupture with the present popular status quo accepting political stability as provided by the Party as the fundamental need of the Chinese society.


Sonika Gupta,
Coordinator, IIT-M China Studies Centre