How Memes Became the Best Weapon Against Chinese Internet Censorship

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China's censors are blocking words like "today" and "June 4" from social media as part of the country's yearly chore to block any reference to the anniversary to the Tiananmen Square massacre 24 years ago. And though the Chinese are running a sophisticated and tight censorship ship, they're having a bit harder time blocking memes. Yes memes. 

It's tradition for the Chinese government to block any references to the Tiananmen Square protests and June 4 massacre, a job which has gotten exponentially more difficult since the Internet and social media came into the picture. Back in 2009, the government was targeting and blocking sites like Flickr, Hotmail, and the Huffington Post because they were afraid those sites would reference the anniversary. That still goes on today as many Chinese websites will, as Tech in Asia reports, go down today because of Chinese censors. June 4 is sarcastically referred to as "Internet Maintenance Day" for all the websites that go offline. 

And with the evolution of social media, Chinese censors have evolved too and have learned to block search terms like "today" on their Weibo social media platform: 

China's Digital Times has a longer list of the blocked terms which include "fire", "blood" and the date "May 35" which people used to get around the "June 4" censorship. And China's Global Times paper, an arm of the government-run People's Daily newspaper, today ran two editorials praising censorship and how net censorship is "in the public's best interest." (Head on over to Beijing Cream to get an unfiltered view of just how bad the premise of these two editorials are). 

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So how do you get around this? As, Quartz's Jake Maxwell Watts points out, the loophole seems to be the memes. This one re-imagines the tanks (pictured in this iconic photo) 

 ... as giant rubber ducks (an art installation that deserves its own post). The image got past Weibo's censors: 

China censors countered by banning the phrase "big yellow duck." The site, "We Live in Beijing" made a not so veiled reference to censorship and the protests, by removing the tanks altogether: 

A cow interpretation made it through Weibo's censors too (and there doesn't seem to be a block on cow yet):

Same with this preying mantis:

And, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out, this Lego version of "tank man" also made it through:

But not all the images/memes are that literal. As HuffPo UK points out, you can also squeeze this picture of a calculator by censors (1989 is when the protests started, 6/4 = June 4):

And another way to represent June 4, 1989:

The pattern here seems to be that censors don't have a handle on policing images.There's something in these photos and the ingenius way people in China are making sure the date isn't forgotten, that harkens back to the original protests which, among other things, stressed the need for freedom of speech and freedom of the press.  The protests, as Watts reminds us, aren't restricted to the intangible Internet images. Citizens in Hong Kong and Macau (self-governing territories of China) had vigils today remembering those Tiananmen and the dead—people there turned out en masse, which censors have no answer for (the scene from Hong Kong below):

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.