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How the Chinese are defying the Tiananmen censors

A shopper stands in front of a mock tank imitating those used during the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Image taken in Hong Kong, 3 June 2014
A shopper stands in front of a mock tank imitating those used during the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Image taken in Hong Kong, 3 June 2014

REUTERS/Bobby Yip

In London's Trafalgar Square, a young boy stands with his arm stretched out. He is facing four people holding images of army tanks. They are participating in an Amnesty UK reenactment of the famous "Tank Man" photograph of the man who stood in front of a column of tanks in Beijing on 5 June 1989, the morning after government troops opened fire on pro-democracy protesters camped out in Tiananmen Square.

This is just one of many events held around the world on the 25th anniversary of the crackdown, to not only commemorate those who died but also to preserve the history of the nationwide protests and fight against the "obliteration of memory".

There will be no such commemoration inside China. Most people there have not seen the "Tank Man" photograph and receive very little information about the protests, beyond what is shared in political speeches justifying the suppression. While some estimates say thousands were killed in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, no official death toll has ever been released. Information online is heavily censored and students do not learn about it in school. Also at play is a type of self-censorship among Chinese citizens, where parents hold back details in order to protect their children, according to Cheuk Kwan, chair of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China.

Despite the regime's unrelenting effort to suppress all memory of the event, many individuals and groups are finding ways to shed some light on the Tiananmen "taboo". Here are five of them:


Visit the world's first Tiananmen Square massacre museum

Those who are able to travel to Hong Kong can visit the world's first museum on the 1989 pro-democracy protests. Almost 7,000 visitors, from Hong Kong, mainland China and elsewhere, have visited the June 4 Memorial Museum since it opened on 26 April, according to reports. It's easy to walk past the museum if you don't know what you are looking for; signs are only visible on the floor directory by the elevator, says Index on Censorship. Inside, visitors can find displays of photographs, newspaper clippings, videos and other features of the protests.

While it's a modest space, its existence is an achievement in its own right. Building occupants earlier called for its closure. Yang Jianli, a U.S.-based activist who participated in the 1989 protests, was refused entry to Hong Kong to attend the opening ceremony, which was picketed by pro-China supporters. And the museum is currently facing a lawsuit for violating the deeds of the building.

"This place is pretty meagre… [but if it closes down], it will be a great loss for China, because this is the only place in China where the truth about 4 June can be made public," one of the visitors from the mainland told the South China Morning Post. He was already aware of what had happened in 1989 from online research and from talking to eyewitnesses, but the museum helped him understand the events in greater detail.


Subtly encourage students to ask questions

A high-school teacher who took part in the 1989 protests as a student explained to Canada's public broadcaster, the CBC, how he tries to ensure that the next generation learns about the protests and the massacre.

The 1989 protests which were held in Beijing and numerous other cities are not part of the approved curriculum and the teacher would not be permitted to include any such mention in the school text books. Instead, he brings up the topic in a roundabout way by quoting speeches by political party leaders that make reference to it. This sparks his students' curiosity. They are then encouraged to ask their parents about what happened or search for information online by accessing mirror websites or duplicates of banned websites.

"I cannot speak to the events directly," the teacher, who is not identified for security reasons, told CBC Radio. "I don't want to lose my job… But I refuse to forget. History helps us understand the present, even if the truth of that history causes us pain."

He laments that many of his fellow citizens are not aware – and may not even care, being more concerned about more pressing issues, like rising housing prices and the economy.

Tens of thousands of people take part in a candlelight vigil at Hong Kong's Victoria Park on 4 June 2014, to mark the 25th anniversary of the military crackdown in Beijing
Tens of thousands of people take part in a candlelight vigil at Hong Kong's Victoria Park on 4 June 2014, to mark the 25th anniversary of the military crackdown in Beijing

REUTERS/Bobby Yip


Bypass China's 'Great Firewall'

The Great Firewall is the digital barrier that prevents the country's 600 million Internet users from reading what their government doesn't want them to see online. As many as 50,000 government employees enforce the censorship of Web pages and search terms, according to reports.

So blogs or social media posts about "Tiananmen Square" and "June 4" are quickly censored. Authorities also block alternative ways of referring to the forbidden date, such as 6-4, 64, 63+1, 65-1, "May 35th" and "April 65th". Censors have also removed posts with the words "tomorrow" and "today" on the eve and day of the anniversary, as well the words "in memory of" and pictures of candles.

Still, there are creative ways to get around the blocks. In 2013, the "Tank Man" photograph was reconfigured with Lego pieces or the tanks photoshopped into giant rubber ducks. Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto-based research laboratory, has looked into how code words are used to discuss sensitive topics. As censors detect and block them, they have to be changed in an ongoing cat-and-mouse game.

Citizens are facing an even tougher Internet firewall right now as GreatFire.org, an organisation that creates mirror sites, reports that in the last few days all of Google's services, from search and Google maps to the more innocuous calendar or slides apps, are also being blocked. It is unclear if this will be a temporary ban linked to the Tiananmen anniversary or a more permanent measure.


Use art to express memories and dissent

"Does an artist in a repressive society have an obligation to pursue not just beauty but also truth?"




For some self-proclaimed "dissident artists" in China, the Tiananmen events have served as an inspiration, according to the Washington Post. They use their art to express their discontent over the crackdown and authoritarianism in general.

Testing the government's limits has always been a challenge for Chinese artists. Censorship is increasingly lax when it comes to the Cultural Revolution or figures such as Mao Zedong, but Tiananmen remains a taboo topic.

Some artists, such as Yan Zhengxue, "aggressively flout the censorship". He recently received a visit from state security officials warning him not to speak to foreign media about Tiananmen.

Another artist, Guo Jian, was detained on 3 June after an interview with him about the crackdown was published. The Australian-Chinese artist described a piece he had created to mark the anniversary: a diorama of Tiananmen Square covered in 160kg of minced pork.


Speak out despite the risks

For years, IFEX members have been documenting how activists, writers and journalists have faced persecution for speaking out about Tiananmen. "Tiananmen Square casts a long shadow on freedom of expression in China," said Marian Botsford Fraser, Chair of PEN's Writers in Prison Committee. "Not only is the tragedy itself a suppressed piece of history in China, but many of those who protested 25 years ago are still being imprisoned, harassed and silenced."

This persecution has only increased in the lead up to the anniversary, according to the International Federation of Journalists, Freedom House and others. Amnesty International and Chinese Human Rights Defenders are maintaining lists of activists who have been detained, questioned, or placed under house arrest, or who suspiciously disappeared in advance of 4 June.

A media blackout has also been enforced. Chinese journalists are trained "not to ever touch Tiananmen with a 10-foot pole," a Beijing-based journalist told Index on Censorship. Foreign media were also warned against reporting from Tiananmen Square, say media reports. And today, 4 June, any journalists in the square were closely monitored and ushered away from the area, according to the BBC.







Given the risks, the bravery of those speaking out and pushing back is commendable. The Tiananmen Mothers, a group of survivors of 4 June and family members of victims, have continued to speak out. Even though some members of the group have been put under around-the-clock surveillance or forced to leave Beijing and prevented from holding a private memorial marking the anniversary of their children's death, the group has managed to release some new documentation based on interviews conducted in 2013 in nine provinces and regions including Inner Mongolia. Excerpts from these interviews are captured in this video.



Perform the simplest of commemorations

When the high school teacher was asked what he would do on this year's anniversary to remember the events, he answered that he could go for a walk in Tiananmen Square, or watch a documentary on the protests. "That is the only thing we can do," he told CBC Radio.

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