"Tiananmen Square" search on Google: in the US on the left, the tanks.On the right, a tour in China.
Chinese expats commemorated the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre yesterday. But while the event remains unforgettable to the rest of the world, one of our Observers for China reminds us that the country itself is almost entirely unaware of it ever taking place, as the authorities have extinguished close to all information about it from the internet.
"Society was more free then than it is now"
Wei Shi is the founder of Boxun.com, a site dedicated to fighting the abuse of human rights and freedom of expression in China. Today he lives in the US.Most people, especially the young, have no idea what happened on June 4, 1989. The web, and search engines in particular, are sufficiently censored to make it very difficult to access reliable information about the event. Of course, if you're really motivated you'll find a way around it. Automatic filters for example are more efficient in Chinese than foreign languages, so if you type the key words in English on Google China we get a few pages coming up with the real story. Web users have also found a way to avoid prohibited texts getting picked up by moderators on discussion forums. One of the techniques is to write so that read from left to write (which is the normal way to read Chinese), the text says nothing, but if read from top to bottom is about the massacres.
Some of the press said the censorship was slackened a bit during the earthquake crisis. I had the same impression at first, but really it was just that the government was overwhelmed by the event. The first photos of dead people and debris came from blogs and unofficial online press. But then when we started talking about the way shoddy schools had collapsed, the authorities quickly tightened their fist again. Web users noticed very quickly that out of 40,000 of the dead almost a third of them were children, and some of them started saying that it was because money supposed to be for construction materials for schools actually ended up in the pockets of local councillors. This debate about corruption, which played a big part in the drama, could never really take off online because most messages were deleted soon after they were posted.
In 1989 I was working as a civil servant near to Beijing, inspecting factories. I couldn't get out of work to go to the protests like the students. But I listened to them in the evening when they came back. They told us about their day. Society was more free then than it is now. We had more freedom of speech and that's one of the reasons the student movement got off the ground in the first place. After 1989 they tightened up. Of course people in the cities are richer now. But if you look at the situation of farmers; the environmental problems we're faced with; the water shortage that's becoming critical; the corruption...well, I wouldn't say that China's any better now than it was in 1989."
Censorship on search engine
China's biggest search engine, Baidu.com, doesn't come up with any results for "Tiananmen Square massacre". The message reads: "Search results leading to illegal content are not displayed".
Commemorating Tiananmen Square in Hong Kong