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)
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Beijing - Amid all the alarming news about North Korea’s recent nuclear test and the reflections on the Tiananmen Square massacre of 20 years ago this week, a little piece of promising news from this region got far less attention than it deserved.
Last Sunday, June 24, some 1.1 million Mongolians, or nearly three-quarters of all eligible voters, went to the polling stations. It was the country’s sixth presidential election since the country left the Soviet Union’s orbit and embraced multi-party politics in 1990 and this time around, another milestone was reached: a candidate other than the leader of the Mongolian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party won.
Following a hard-fought campaign, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj of the opposition Democratic Party won 51 per cent of the vote, ousting incumbent Nambariin Enkhbayar of the MPRP. And while the MPRP’s narrow victory in parliamentary elections a year ago had sparked deadly riots amid accusations of electoral fraud, there was no violence this time around or allegations of improprieties this time around.
Mr. Enkhbayar, whose party has dominated Mongolia politics for nearly 90 years, gracefully conceded defeat even before the final results were officially announced. The street parties began soon afterwards.
The vote was hailed as “free and peaceful” by the U.S. State Department. “This election is a clear demonstration of Mongolia’s continued commitment to democratic reform and represents a real achievement for such a young democracy,” spokesman Ian Kelly said in a statement. Even more remarkable was the fact that Mongolia’s democratic evolution has happened despite the fact the country is wedged between Russia and China, two giants somewhat less concerned with the will of the people.
Those who observed the process up close were just as impressed. “The riots last year had everyone a little worried. Here was the one country in the region that was seemingly doing very well in terms of building democracy and institutions – compared with everything else going on in Asia – and suddenly maybe that wasn’t the case. This election really reassured everyone,” said Julian Dierkes, an assistant professor at the Institute of Asia Research at the University of British Columbia who was on the ground in Mongolia as a monitor last week.
There is, unsurprisingly, a whiff of big-power politics in all this. Though Mongolia was never formally part of the old USSR, its political scene is very similar to that in former republics like Ukraine, Georgia and parts of Central Asia, with one party (in Mongolia’s case, the MPRP) seen as aligned with Russia and the other (Elbegdorj’s Democratic Party) closer to the United States. The early analysis is that the Mongolia’s new president will try and decrease the country’s reliance on Moscow by upping ties with the U.S., Europe and Canada. (China is also increasingly a player in Mongolia’s business scene, but until now has played only a background role in the political struggle.) All that aside, no one but the Mongolians cast their vote last week, and they now appear to have chosen a Democratic Party president who will have veto power over an MPRP-controlled parliament. Now all they have to do is work together to deliver on voters’ hopes that they can lead the country out of endemic poverty.
Despite opening its mining sector and signing lucrative deals with international firms, one-third of Mongolians live below the poverty line.
p.s. Speaking of Tiananmen Square, I’m watching BBC World in The Globe and Mail’s Beijing office as I type this. Each hour, when the anchor tries to introduce the piece BBC has done for the 20th anniversary of June 4, 1989, the screen here goes blank. I assume the piece they don’t want people to see is this one.
Beijing, May 20, 2009 – In today’s China, it’s often difficult to gauge how ordinary people feel about the Tiananmen Square massacre of 20 years ago. As the anniversary approaches, are the gory details of that day – and the fact the government still suppresses them – relevant in a country that looks nothing like the China of 1989?
Pro-democracy activists, all but a very brave few of them speaking from outside the country, insist that June 4, 1989 remains the blackest day in recent Chinese history. To them, the wound Chinese society suffered then won’t be anywhere near healed until the events of 1989 are brought before the public eye and those responsible for the bloodshed are made accountable.
When I recently interviewed Bao Tong – the top aide to the ousted Communist Party secretary Zhao Ziyang, and the only senior Communist official jailed for his role in 1989 (for standing with the students) – he certainly shared that point of view. He told me that Deng Xiaoping’s decision to use force to disperse the student protestors who had occupied Beijing’s central square to back their demands for change “caused all the [political] stagnation and backwardness in China over the past 20 years.” You can read the whole article here.
Similarly, Ding Zilin of the Tiananmen Mothers committee has been waging a long and lonely fight to force the government to investigate what happened on June 4, the day that her 17-year-old son Jiang Jielian was shot in the back and killed near Tiananmen Square. Her group has meticulously collected a list of 195 names of those killed during the crackdown, and she believes many more than that actually died that day.
But many other, often louder, voices say that Tiananmen Square no longer matters. They argue China’s astonishing economic progress in the past 20 years proves that Deng Xiaoping made the right decision in cracking down and preventing China from falling into the type of chaos that hit Eastern Europe and the former USSR after the collapse of Communism there. To them, it’s only Westerners with an “anti-Chinese” agenda who keep the Tiananmen issue alive.
(The government’s own changing view is nicely documented by Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch The most recent assessment given by a government spokesperson is “the government has already reached the verdict on 'June Fourth,' and the stability of the country was the foremost priority.”)
Rarely are ordinary Chinese voices heard on this topic. In large part, that’s because the government has made the topic taboo. It’s never mentioned in the state-controlled media, and Tiananmen-related websites on the Internet are routinely blocked by censors. People like Mr. Bao Tong and Ms. Ding are kept under heavy surveillance, with their phones monitored and their interaction with other Chinese strictly controlled. The events of that day are never discussed in polite conversation - it's almost as if they never happened.
Which is why I was fascinated by a little phenomenon that the Chinese edition of Google, google.cn, (otherwise best known for happily helping build the Great Firewall of China) inadvertently recorded. Take a look at this link. It’s a snapshot, sent my way by a Chinese Twitter pal of the top 10 most-searched items on google.cn for Tuesday, May 19, 2009.
The No. 2 most-searched term, and recent holder of the No. 1 spot, is the apocryphal string “6+4 20.” It looks like bad arithmetic, but it's in fact a reference to the sixth month, fourth day, and the 20th anniversary of June 4, 1989.
The Net Nannies would have to be at the top of their game to spot that one. Plug it into google.cn, and Google returns a load of sites that are normally blocked inside China, including (at the time I’m writing this, anyway) the Chinese-language Wikipedia entry on the massacre, which contains the famous photo of a man staring down a row of tanks and repeats assertions that thousands of people died on and around the square that day.
Apparently, a whole lot of ordinary Chinese aren’t quite convinced that Tiananmen Square no longer matters.