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.

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