The upcoming anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre has prompted China’s censors to issue new censorship instructions, targeting various online expressions of grief, remembrance, and political dissent. Douyin, the sister application of TikTok operated by parent company ByteDance, reportedly issued the instructions to key opinion leaders in the streaming space on June 2, ahead of the June 4 anniversary. The instructions forbid official accounts from posting content and ban key opinion leaders from posting brand-related advertising content from June 3-6. In addition, all those running official accounts must closely monitor comment sections of old posts to ensure they don’t display forbidden content, such as lit candle emojis, numbers with unclear implications, slogans, images of Hong Kong artists, or photos of large crowds.
The censorship instructions also call for official accounts to closely monitor the number of retweets, comments, or likes on their content to ensure that they don’t exceed certain sensitive numbers. This is a clear attempt to prevent any references to the Tiananmen massacre, which happened on June 4, 1989. Last year, a live-streamer named Li Jiaqi tried to hawk a tank-shaped cake during a show on the eve of the massacre’s anniversary. The livestream was cut short, and Li was temporarily banned from live-streaming. The incident gave birth to the Li Jiaqi Paradox, which is the problem of not knowing what’s forbidden and how to self-censor.
The new censorship instructions are part of a broader tightening of political controls ahead of the anniversary, with Baidu Maps recently removing the site of a 2022 protest against Xi Jinping and the Communist Party from its search function. Hong Kong’s government has also removed hundreds of books about Tiananmen from local libraries, and the city’s annual Tiananmen vigil has ceased to exist after the passage of the national security law in 2020. The June 4 Museum in Hong Kong has been forced to close, although it remains accessible online. The only physical exhibition dedicated to preserving the memory of the 1989 Tiananmen protests is now the recently opened June 4th Memorial Museum in New York.
Brief history and implications of censorship instructions
The new censorship instructions issued by Douyin aim to prevent any references to the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, which is a sensitive topic for the Chinese government. The massacre, which occurred on June 4th, 1989, saw Chinese troops violently suppress protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, resulting in the deaths of hundreds or possibly thousands of people. Since then, the Chinese government has gone to great lengths to suppress any discussion of the event, with many citizens unaware of what happened.
One of the ways in which the government enforces censorship is by issuing directives to media outlets, journalists, and bloggers. The instructions are often communicated orally and then leaked online, making it difficult to verify their authenticity. In addition, the wording of the signals often changes, reflecting the shifting priorities of the Chinese government.
The new censorship instructions issued by Douyin are significant because they demonstrate the government’s efforts to clamp down on any online expression of dissent ahead of the Tiananmen anniversary. The internet has become a vital space for Chinese citizens to express their opinions and share information, making it a target for censorship by the government.
These restrictions to freedom of speech and online expression are a worrying development that underscores China’s growing authoritarianism. By suppressing dissent and limiting free speech, the Chinese government is creating a climate of fear and censorship that threatens to stifle creativity and innovation. As such, it’s essential to continue drawing attention to the situation in China and to hold the government accountable for its human rights abuses.