BEIJING – One minute, I was marveling at all the free-flowing chatter on Twitter about the looming anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989. There were links being posted to information about that day that has never been shown in China’s state-controlled media. A campaign encouraging Chinese to wear white, a colour of mourning, on Thursday was spreading tweet by tweet.
I found myself wondering how long it would be allowed to continue.
Then I hit the refresh button and a far-too-familiar message appeared on my computer screen: “The connection to the server was reset while the page was loading. The network link was interrupted while negotiating a connection. Please try again.”
The Great Firewall of China has grown again. Forty-eight hours ahead of the most sensitive date on the Chinese calendar, a host of popular websites, including photo-sharing site Flickr.com, search engines Livesearch.com and Bing.com (Microsoft’s answer to Google), as well as Hotmail, are all suddenly inaccessible, in addition to Twitter.com.
Video-sharing site YouTube and blogger portals Wordpress and Blogspot have already been blocked for weeks.
No one needed to tell Chinese Twitterers why the crackdown on free expression happened at the start of June.
“Isn’t it rather obvious why? Because of certain events that transpired just shy of 20 years ago,” wrote Kaiser Kuo, a well-known Beijing-based Twitterer who identifies himself as a guitarist, writer and a father of two. “Hopefully this will pass after the [expletive] sensitive date.”
“I believe that this website is closed because of two days of later -- June 4,” chimed in Zuola, a popular Chinese blogger whose own page also falls on the wrong side of the Great Firewall, but who had still been managing to reach a wide audience through Twitter.
Earlier this year, China announced that it now had 298 million Internet users, more than any other country. An estimated 70 million Chinese have personal blogs, forcing a government used to having complete control over the flow of information to adopt new tactics. But China’s Internet community has been learning and adapting just as fast.
Many of the Chinese on Twitter were quickly back to tweeting as normal within minutes of the new block, logging on through virtual private networks to go around the censors. However, less web-savvy Chinese (and those unable to afford the cost of a VPN) will no longer be able to read what they write. Nor will they be able to see pictures posted on Flickr, or use their Hotmail accounts.
The move appears part of a wider effort to censor media ahead of Thursday’s anniversary. The hard copy of the South China Morning Post that I get delivered from Hong Kong has stopped arriving in recent days, although the International Herald Tribune that gets delivered by the same company keeps coming through.
BBC World television goes off the air each time one of their anchors tries to introduce a piece about the anniversary. They’re getting slow on the trigger finger though, I actually caught a brief glimpse of Tank Man the famous unknown rebel who stood alone in front of a row of tanks in 1989, on BBC today before the screen went blank.
The government also seems to have moved to silence well-known dissidents ahead of the anniversary. Bao Tong, a former top Communist Party official whom I recently interviewed for The Globe and Mail was taken from his home today by security agents and reportedly driven to his home village in southern Zhejiang province. Ding Zilin, head of the Tiananmen Mothers organization (I also interviewed her for my piece this weekend about today’s generation of Chinese students), was also told to leave the city, and phones at her apartment rang busy all day.
All this over an anniversary that many loudly insist is a non-event. "The party and the government long ago reached a conclusion about the political incident that took place at the end of the 1980s and related issues," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a news conference today.
No question there. The party and the government are decided.
But today they don’t seem quite so certain about the people.
Addendum: An interesting little moment developing that may say something about the futility of trying to censor the Internet in 2009.
"China blocks Twitter" is now the No. 3 topic on Twitter, behind only "Air France" and "goodsex."
Number 8 is the conversation this was meant to squelch: "Tiananmen." (http://twitpic.com/6gqvl)