There Are 64 Tiananmen Terms Censored on China's Internet Today

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People holding portraits of China's political prisoners take part in a vigil at Liberty Square in Taipei commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. (Pichi Chuang/Reuters)

Today—the day known to much of the rest of the world as the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests—is known, in China, as "Internet maintenance day." In anticipation of the anniversary, the PRC's censors have strategically shut down Internet services (Google's among them). It's a silent holiday, for the most part: As the Wall Street Journal's Jason Ng notes, the People’s Daily, the country's Communist Party newspaper, led today's front page with a story about Xi Jinping’s attendance of an engineering conference. 

As schemes for enforcing silence, these approaches—shutdowns, distractions—are sweeping. But when it comes to Sina Weibo, the PRC's analog to Twitter, China's censorship-savvy government seems to have adopted a more surgical strategy. Ng, writing for the Journal's China Realtime blog, has identified 64 terms that are currently censored on the network: "Tiananmen" and "June 4" and "tank man" in varying permutations. 

"As recently as May 11," Ng writes, "the Chinese words for 'tank' and '64' (short for June 4) were unblocked, but based on tests today, these and many other June 4-related keywords have now been restricted from searching." So, basically, if you try to look up anything on Weibo that uses a censored keyword—like the numbers 六 (6) or 四 (4) or the characters 坦克 (tank)—your search will come up blank.

Here is a highly incomplete list of the currently blocked terms, from Ng's extensive collection: 

  • JUNE 4
  • 天安门: Tiananmen (simplified characters)
  • 坦克: tank
  • liu四: phonetic for 6-4
  • 六四: 6-4
  • 学潮: campus upheaval
  • ⅥⅣ: Roman numerals for 6-4
  • IIXVIIIIX: Roman numbers for 1-9-8-9
  • Jun 4th
  • 陆肆: sounds like “liu si,” homophone for June 4
  • 天安門: Tiananmen (traditional characters)
  • 五月三十五: May 35, aka June 4
  • 瓶反鹿死: Redress June Fourth
  • six四: 6-4
  • six four
  • TAM: abbreviation for Tiananmen
  • 王维林: Wang Weilin, alleged “tank man”
  • 春夏之交: Between spring and summer

The blocked terms are a mix of Mandarin and English, and a mix of the Latin alphabet and Chinese characters—and, for that matter, a mix of traditional and simplified characters. They are the result of censors deconstructing Tiananmen not as history, but as data. They treat the events of that day as a matter of semiotics as much as memory—events that can be broken down to atomic elements of meaning and then transmitted in words and numbers and letters and characters. (And also, in a couple of cases, in Roman numerals.) There are, it turns out, a number of ways to achieve that transmission. 

Recognizing the power of today's anniversary, though, the censors have also escalated their attempts to filter memory. (They will likely also de-escalate those efforts very soon: "If past history is any indicator," Ng notes, "the most sweeping of these search blocks will likely be rescinded once this sensitive period has passed without incident.") Ng counted nine new terms that the PRC has blocked on Weibo for the 2014 anniversary. They include:  

  • 八九: 89
  • 维多利亚公园: Victoria Park  (site of vigil in Hong Kong)
  • VIIIIXVI: Roman numerals for 8-9-6
  • VIIV: 6-4
  • 缅怀: nostalgia—a possible reference to Tiananmen Mothers
  • 侏儒之歌: A song used in Tiananmen commemorations

You have to give the censors credit for cleverness, at least, as they engage in this coded game of cat-and-mouse. One other term that's been newly blocked? 2的6次方. It's a mathematical expression that, translated, means "2 to the power of 6." Which is 64. Or, yes, 6-4.


Via the Wall Street Journal

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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