China’s Tiananmen Anniversary crackdown goes way beyond the firewall

The 24-hour vigil began just after 8 a.m. EST on June 3, more or less on time and without any major disruption.

The event, hosted on Zoom and streamed live on other platforms such as YouTube, was organized by Chinese activists to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre, Beijing’s bloody crackdown on a pro-democracy movement led by students which took place on June 4, 1989.

Whether this could happen was not certain: Organizers feared they would see a repeat last year, when Zoom, the California-based video conferencing company, closed three Tiananmen-related events, including theirs after a request from the Chinese government. The company even temporarily suspended the coordinators’ accounts, despite the fact that they were all located outside of mainland China and four of them were in the United States.

Zoom’s actions led to an investigation and legal action filed by the Justice Department in December. “We try to limit the actions taken to those necessary to comply with local laws. Our response should not have impacted users outside of mainland China, ”Zoom wrote in a declaration posted on his website, in which he admitted he “failed”.

It was one of the most extreme examples of how far Western tech companies will go to comply with China’s strict controls on online content.

A continuation of deletion

This type of self-censorship is the norm for Chinese tech companies, which, unlike US companies protected by rules such as Section 230, are held accountable for user content by Chinese law.

Every year, days before sensitive dates like the anniversary of the 1989 crackdown, the Chinese Internet – which is already strictly monitored – becomes even more closed than usual. Some words are censored on different platforms. Commonly used emojis, like the candle, start to disappear emoji keyboards. Usernames on different platforms cannot be changed. And speech that might have been borderline acceptable at other times of the year may result in a state security visit.

In 2020, Zoom closed three Tiananmen-related events after a request from the Chinese government, despite the fact that they were all located outside of mainland China. In December, the Justice Department filed a complaint against the company.

This is accompanied by repressions in the real world, with enhanced security on Tiananmen Square in Beijing and other places the government deems sensitive, while fierce criticisms of the regime are sent to forced vacation, outright detained or imprisoned.

This year, such removal extends even further. Following the passage of a new Hong Kong National Security Law which drastically reduces speech, despite months protests – commemoration events there and in nearby Macau have been officially banned. (Last year 24 people have been charged for ignoring a similar ban, including one of the movement’s most prominent leaders, democracy activist Joshua Wong, who remains in jail and was recently sentenced to an additional 10 months.

The Covid also plays its role: a large public event planned in Taiwan has also been canceled, for example, due to strict containment after a new wave of covid-19 infections.




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About Johanna Gooding

Johanna Gooding

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