China’s Tiananmen anniversary crackdowns reach far beyond the firewall

The 24-hour vigil started just after 8 a.m. US Eastern Time on June 3—more or less on schedule, and without any major disruptions.

The event, hosted on Zoom and broadcast live on other platforms such as YouTube, was put together by Chinese activists to commemorate the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Beijing’s bloody clampdown on a student-led pro-democracy movement that took place on June 4, 1989.

The fact that it could take place wasn’t certain: organizers were worried that they’d see a repeat of last year, when Zoom, the Californian videoconferencing company, shut down three Tiananmen-related events including theirs after a request from the Chinese government. The company even temporarily suspended the accounts of the coordinators, despite the fact that all of them were located outside of mainland China and four of them were in the US.

Zoom’s actions led to an investigation and lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice in December. “We strive to limit actions taken to only those necessary to comply with local laws. Our response should not have impacted users outside of mainland China,” Zoom wrote in a statement posted to its website, in which it admitted that it “fell short.”

It was one of the most extreme examples of how far western technology companies will go to comply with China’s strict controls on online content.

A suite of suppression

This kind of self-censorship is standard for Chinese technology companies, who—unlike American businesses shielded by rules such as Section 230—are held responsible for user content by Chinese law.

Every year, a few days ahead of sensitive dates like the anniversary of the 1989 crackdown, the Chinese internet—which is already strictly surveilled—becomes even more closed than normal. Certain words are censored on various platforms. Commonly used emojis, like the candle, start disappearing from emoji keyboards. Usernames on different platforms can’t be changed. And speech that may have been borderline acceptable during other times of the year may result in a visit from state security.

In 2020, Zoom shut down three Tiananmen-related events after a request from the Chinese government—despite the fact that all of them were located outside of mainland China. In December the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the company.

This is accompanied by crackdowns in the real world, with increased security at Tiananmen Square in Beijing and other locations the government deems sensitive, while vocal critics of the regime are sent on forced vacations, detained, or jailed outright.

This year, such suppression is stretching even further. Following the passage of a new national security law in Hong Kong that severely curtails speech—despite months of protests—commemoration events there and in neighboring Macau have been officially banned. (Last year 24 people were charged for ignoring a similar ban, including one of the movement’s most prominent leaders, democracy activist Joshua Wong, who is still in jail and was recently sentenced to a further 10 months.

Covid is playing its part too: a large public event planned in Taiwan has also been canceled, for example, due to a strict lockdown after a new wave of covid-19 infections.

All of this heightens the symbolism of this year’s online events.

“Our motto is ‘Tiananmen is not history,’” says Li-Hsuan Guo, a campaign manager with the New School for Democracy, a democracy advocacy organization in Taiwan that is organizing the largest Chinese-language memorial. Its event will be livestreamed on Facebook and Youtube: speakers appearing virtually include Fengsuo Zhou, the former Tiananmen student leader kicked off of Zoom last year, and former Hong Kong legislator Nathan Law, one of the leaders of the region’s Umbrella Movement.

On top of this there is the 24-hour Zoom vigil, as well as other English-language events on Clubhouse, the audio-only social network. Activists including Zhou have been holding daily four-hour long Clubhouse meetings since April 15, the day pro- democracy protests started in 1989.

In a way, Zoom’s actions against Zhou last year—and the subsequent investigation by Washington—has given him a sense of safety: the scrutiny on the company was put under makes him believe that it is unlikely to deplatform him again. But, he says, the incident still showed that far outside China, “there’s no safe place for activists.”

“There’s no such thing as ‘within China’ anymore”

Deplatforming is not the only consequence faced by individuals speaking out online.

Netizens in mainland China have had their identities exposed on Chinese social networks for participating on western platforms like Clubhouse and Twitter, and have even been jailed for making critical comments about Communist party leaders on Twitter, despite the fact that the platform is inaccessible to most mainland users. And elsewhere, critics outside of the country have faced organized harassment campaigns, with protestors showing up in front of their homes, sometimes for weeks at a time. State-affiliated hackers have targeted Uyghurs and others in cyberattacks— including by impersonating UN officials, as MIT Technology Review reported last month.

“State-sponsored trolling and doxxing of activists [is] designed to intimidate them into quitting activism altogether,” says Nick Monaco, the director of China Research at Miburo Solutions and coauthor of a recent joint report on Chinese disinformation in Taiwan. “It arguably does the most to disrupt organizing in advance, by instilling … permanent fear,” he adds.

These activities still primarily affect the Chinese diaspora, says Katharin Tai, a PhD candidate at MIT who focuses on Chinese state internet policy and politics. But as both Chinese companies expand further overseas and western companies with Chinese presences are increasingly forced to “resolve this out in the open,” the rest of the world is starting to see the spillover effects of censorship more regularly.

Another case in point: just this week, Nathan Law’s website was taken down by Wix, an Israeli hosting company, at the request of Hong Kong police for violating national security law. It was reinstated, with an apology, three days later.

“There’s no such thing as something ‘just within China’ anymore, unless the platform is restricted from being accessed from abroad,” Tai says.

Sometimes people encounter these restrictions without even realizing: in early June, players of the online roleplaying game Genshin Impact, which is popular worldwide, began wondering on Twitter why they could no longer change their usernames.

Some with connections to China speculated that it was to prevent users from making statements with their usernames about Tiananmen—a common tactic—and that the feature would be back after the anniversary of Tiananmen had passed.

Some of the commenters griped about being stuck with embarrassing names, but others used it as an opportunity to educate other players. “For those living in China, censorship and political persecution are very real things happening in China right now,” wrote one Chinese American user. “It’s a lived experience. It does not ‘go back to normal.’”

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