As always the Chinese authorities cracked down on public commemorations of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, which occurred 34 years ago last Sunday. As always more things were added to the list of what cannot be said in the lead-up. And as always people got creative in their response to getting round the censorship. Here’s a roundup of what happened recently for the anniversary Beijing would rather we all forgot.
White candles not welcome
Armoured police vehicles were deployed and hundreds of police conducted stop and search operations near Victoria Park in Hong Kong, where vigils for the victims of the massacre had previously been held for decades. The UN were “alarmed” that 23 people were arrested on Sunday for “breaching the peace”, including a veteran activist knows as “Grandma Wong”. A solitary elderly man who held a candle on a street corner was also reported to have been arrested. Commemorations of the event have become increasingly off-limits in the city state since China imposed a sweeping national security law in 2020. Still, Twitter was filled with images of people lighting candles from the relative safety of their own homes in Hong Kong.
Don’t mention Sitong Bridge
Words or symbols that reference the massacre are notoriously scrubbed from the internet by the Chinese authorities. Last week, this censorship extended to the Sitong Bridge in Beijing, when Chinese language online searches of the bridge yielded no results. It comes after a banner was unfurled on the bridge in 2022 calling for the removal of Chinese president Xi Jinping. A Weibo post by the British Embassy in Beijing showing how the Chinese state media originally reported the massacre (namely in more detail than the silence now, with state media making reference to mass casualties in hospital at the time) was removed by the authorities. The anniversary is sometimes known as “internet maintenance day” because of the number of websites taken offline.
In the weeks building up to the anniversary, it was reported that books and videos about the massacre were pulled from Hong Kong public libraries, after government auditors requested works that were “manifestly contrary” to national security be taken away. Wio News reported in mid-May that searches of library archives involving keywords on the massacre turned up no articles or references.
Tiananmen Square surveilled
No shocker here, but worth saying nonetheless – any form of rally or protest was absent at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Sunday due to additional security checks in the area. Pedestrians on Changan Avenue, running north of the square, were stopped and forced to present identification. Journalists were also told they need special permission to be in the area.
New York new museum
A new museum dedicated to the Tiananmen Square massacre opened on Friday in New York. Zhou Fengsuo, who opened the exhibit as part of the 4th June Memorial Museum, felt it was needed as a pushback to the decades-long campaign by the CCP to eradicate remembrance of the massacre around the world. Despite being in the USA, there are still security fears for the museum’s workers. Speaking about how the museum will operate a visitor booking system, Wang Dan, a former student leader during the Tiananmen protests, told the Guardian: ““We cannot open the door for anyone who wants to come in because we’re really worried they [the Chinese embassy] will send somebody.”
The world remembers
Commemorations for the massacre were held around the world, including in Sydney, where speakers included exiled former diplomat Chen Yonglin, and demonstrators chanted “Free Hong Kong”. In London, hundreds gathered outside the Chinese Embassy calling for justice for the victims of the massacre, and for the release of human rights lawyer Chow Hang-Tung. Over in Taipei in Taiwan, less than a month after the seizure of Hong Kong’s “Pillar of Shame”, a statue commemorating the victims of the massacre, people gathered around a replica on Sunday as part of the city’s commemorations. Now the only place in the Chinese-speaking world to openly hold a memorial, organisers hoped to show solidarity with both Hong Kong and Chinese dissidents.
The near coincidence of two events this autumn – the World Cup in Qatar and the 20th National Party Congress in Beijing, where Chinese leader Xi Jinping will likely assume an unprecedented third term in power – represents an appropriate moment to reflect on one of Xi’s signature initiatives. Not the Chinese Dream, the Belt and Road Initiative, poverty alleviation or his anti-corruption campaign, but football.
Legend holds that a soccer-mad young Xi was so aggrieved by the “humiliation” inflicted on the Chinese national team by English club Watford at an exhibition game he attended at the Workers’ Stadium in 1983 that he determined he would redress China’s weakness in football. Decades later he declared, shortly before assuming power, that China would host and ultimately win the World Cup.
As a means to overcoming the country’s historical “national humiliation”, it was probably overly ambitious.
Nonetheless, in his first term Xi put football reform and development squarely on the national political agenda through three major policy documents promulgated between 2014 and 2016. Together they represented an overarching framework for developing a domestic sports economy, facilitating mass participation and creating an effective training ecosystem from youth levels to the national team. The long-term objective was to transform China into a “world class football nation” by 2050, a timeframe and scale of ambition that aligned with broader national objectives such as the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.
Common to Chinese policymaking, broad top-down objectives were delegated to many different institutional and private actors to design and implement, leading to much experimentation, messy ad hoc adjustment and competing interests.
Compared with many other initiatives associated with Xi’s tenure, football is a benign sector. Many concerns raised at the height of the football craze a few years ago have, as yet, proven unfounded. Chinese companies’ global sponsorship deals and the elevation of Chinese officials within international governance bodies have not made the global game any more corrupt or susceptible to parochial interests.
Chinese investors’ rush to demonstrate fealty to Xi’s football plans (or merely to secrete money offshore) led to a brief, and now largely divested, scattergun acquisition of European football clubs and assets, but the clubs and leagues survived and even though many were in globally strategic locations it did not result in additional “geopolitical influence”. Nor did the funding and construction of stadiums in Africa, though there may have been marginal “soft power” gains in facilitating the hosting of several Africa Cup of Nations tournaments.
Imposing Xi’s favourite sport across Chinese school curricula might appear heavy handed, but encouraging China’s sedentary youth to exercise and head off a public health timebomb is hardly a pernicious objective.
Football is Xi’s pet project, but criticism of the underperforming national team, the hapless Chinese Football Association (CFA) or broader reforms are subject to no more stringent censorship than anything else on the Chinese internet (contained criticism is OK, demands for systemic change or encouraging collective action is not).
It is true that Chinese football reproduces class and place-based disparities, with migrant workers, for example, less able to participate. And, prior to Covid, match-going fans were already facing increasingly strict security at stadiums, fickle owners and idiosyncratic regulatory interventions by the CFA. And yet while we should be mindful of the progressive circumscription of freedoms across Chinese society under Xi, many of the problems faced by Chinese fans are common to supporters everywhere.
That said, we should pause for a moment on the question of ethnicity, given the unprecedented crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang that has come to define Xi’s 10 years in office. On the surface, football has become a site for advances in representation. China’s best player, Wu Lei, is a member of the Hui (Muslim) ethnic minority group. In March, Chinese-Nigerian Huang Shenghao became the first bi-racial player to represent the country (at under-17 level). Mirahmetjan Muzepper became the first Uyghur to play for the men’s national team in 2018.
The treatment of another Uyghur player, Erfan Hezim, demonstrates the systemic repression of young Uyghur men. Hezim spent almost a year in a detention camp in Xinjiang, apparently for unauthorised travel overseas to participate in football training camps, before being allowed to resume his career in 2019. Uyghurs coming through the ranks can face many forms of discrimination, partly explaining the negligible number of players in the Chinese Super League despite the popularity of football in Xinjiang. The region could be a significant source of playing talent, but the conditions there are so severely circumscribed that it is impossible to realise.
As for those from outside China’s official borders, the expedient decision to bring several naturalised Brazilians into the national team during World Cup qualifying met with only muted criticism from grassroot nationalists, even after the players’ efforts proved futile. The handling of naturalised talent, though, demonstrates an enduringly awkward official embrace of foreignness.
The CFA’s provisional regulations oblige clubs to teach naturalised foreigners Chinese language, culture and history, in addition to the fundamental political positions of the CCP. Party cadres attached to every professional club monitor, supervise and submit regular reports on players’ performance, behaviour and attitudes, reproducing the party’s longstanding “foreign affairs” system for handling foreigners. By all accounts, the naturalised Brazilians have been exemplary. But all this shows that some aspects of football’s development reflect the trajectory emerging across other social sectors during Xi’s tenure – one of a controlled society subject to the regime’s circumscriptions and vision for a desirable China.
In line with the requirements of the reform policies, infrastructure has been built and facilities rolled out on an impressive scale. But football has so far failed to become an elective mass participation sport like basketball or badminton. The popularity of gaming and the exponential growth of professional e-sports in China suggests football has its work cut out appealing to young people.
China has its fair share of dedicated supporters and “transnational fans” who are as knowledgeable and passionate about foreign clubs they will never visit as locals are. Yet the kind of intangible “football culture” that manifests in ubiquitous pick-up games on Brazilian beaches or English playgrounds has not taken root. Football schools and academies have not (yet) produced a “Chinese Messi” or even a supply of more prosaic talent, although it is premature to write off long-term efforts to build up the talent pool.
Youth participation has run afoul of resistant parents who prefer their children to focus on academics, which is intense, uber-competitive and almost certainly a better investment in the future than football. Short fee-paying football camps are the preserve of cosmopolitan middle-class parents, while serious football academies offering talent-based scholarships are mainly an option for poor families whose children are unable to compete for academic advancement. Football as a leisure activity and signifier of middle-class lifestyles embodying China’s desired “mildly prosperous” modernity has so far failed to capture imaginations.
And then came Covid and continuing “dynamic zero” restrictions to burst football’s bubble economy. With the Chinese Super League (CSL) mothballed for a time, expensively-acquired foreign players departed, and China gave up its hosting rights for the 2023 Asian Cup due to the ongoing uncertainties. Owners facing economic headwinds created by the pandemic were unable to service the continual cash injections needed to sustain clubs.
The property sector, which has become intimately entwined with football, was hit by a debt crisis and state interventions associated with Xi’s new preoccupation of ‘Common Prosperity’. Evergrande, the over-leveraged real-estate developer and owner of China’s most successful club, was forced to sell the land for its half-built new mega-stadium back to the local government. Since 2015, more than 20 clubs across the top divisions have folded, often due to insufficient organisational experience and unsustainable business models. Jiangsu FC disbanded soon after winning the CSL in 2020 when its owner, indebted retailer Suning, decided it could no longer afford it.
There is no reason why Chinese football shouldn’t find a sustainable niche as a spectator and participant sport, and a national team that can compete in Asia and qualify for international tournaments. Some of the ambitions set out in Xi’s reforms are not currently realistic, but long-term plans should be given time to unfold. A hypothetical Chinese bid to host a future World Cup, would, given Fifa’s interests and track record, prove irresistible.
The hosting of a World Cup would be a significant boost to football development in the country. But the attendant potential for “sportswashing” and requisite self-censorship have already been demonstrated on a small scale by European clubs and leagues desperate to access the Chinese market. Take the example of midfielder Mesut Özil, who was sidelined by Arsenal, which has a huge following in China, after speaking out against the persecution of Uyghurs.
The Chinese national team will not compete in Qatar later this year, but China will be present through Fifa’s signature sponsorship deal with Wanda, and Chinese fans will watch en masse, attracted by the spectacle, the conversation and the opportunities for offshore sports-betting.
Jonathan Sullivan is a Chinese specialist and an associate professor at the University of Nottingham.
This article appears in the autumn 2022 issue of Index on Censorship. To subscribe click here
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”119624″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]On the east coast of the USA around 100 children have sent postcards to a man they do not know who is incarcerated over 8,000 miles away. The man is Jimmy Lai, the Hong Kong media mogul and activist.
The postcards have provided a brief ray of light in an otherwise dark chapter for a man locked up for his political beliefs, and the city state of Hong Kong which is currently in the ever-tightening grip of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Lai is imprisoned on charges most us will, hopefully, never have to face. The billionaire publisher and founder of Apple Daily has been jailed since December 2020 after he lit a candle during a public commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
The charges were related to this and his other pro-democracy protests. He is perhaps the most high-profile victim of the National Security Law, which was passed in the summer of 2020 with the precise aim of punishing and stifling dissent. This month he faces a trial without jury, where he will plead not guilty to the national security charges.
“My children are in a Catholic school and are Catholic, and I was thinking about how Catholics believe in the idea called corporal works of mercy, and they are these physical acts we do for people that import a lot of grace and mercy, and one of those is visiting the imprisoned,” she said.
She explained how Lai being persecuted for his ideas and belief – not only political but also regarding his faith – inspired her to contact her children’s school.
“This is a great example for these kids of somebody who stood up for their faith and is suffering unjust consequences for that. I thought they could write postcards to Jimmy and tell him they know a little bit of his story, and they’re praying for him and admire him.”
Lai is currently held at Stanley Prison, a maximum-security facility in Hong Kong where he has spent time in solitary confinement. Already a believer, he has found strength through his faith. A drawing of Jesus Christ on the cross done by Lai from prison was printed on the postcards the children sent.
This drawing was originally published in Index on Censorship’s spring 2022 magazine, alongside letters of his, many of which reference his faith.
Ponnuru said: “We thought it would be nice to include some religious art by Jimmy, and it would be a really meaningful thing that this art he sent out in the world would come back to him from a lot of children. For the children it was a great way to participate in corporal works of mercy that they ordinarily wouldn’t be able to do so. By sending him a card and message, they are visiting him.”
Jimmy Lai’s drawing of Jesus Christ.
She is eager to point out that she wants any child to have the opportunity to send a postcard, as the message of the project should not be defined just by Catholicism.
“This isn’t limited to Catholic schools. We would love any child to participate, children of all faiths and no faith. It’s about understanding the injustice of what is happening to Jimmy and others in Hong Kong. This pilot programme is just the beginning, and we would be very happy to create a postcard that would be appropriate for students at public and other schools to send as well,” Ponnuru said.
“Overall, a number of people have said to me they would love to bring it to their school, and priests have told me they are interested in copying the programme. We are going to write to other schools to encourage them to join the project.”
It’s understood the postcards were received in prison within three months of being sent, and that Lai is being allowed to read one daily, enabling him to have regular contact with the outside world.
If you would like more information about the project, and to request postcards for Jimmy Lai, please contact [email protected].[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”117061″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Threats to free speech and free expression come in many guises. In the year since I’ve joined the team at Index, I’ve used this blog to highlight issues as diverse as journalists being assassinated in Afghanistan to the threats of new British legislation on online harms.
One of recurring themes of my blogs has been the way in which authoritarian regimes and groups use every tool at their disposal to repress their populations. From Belarus to Myanmar, from Modi to Trump, we’ve seen global leaders act against their own populations to hold onto power and stop dissent.
For an organisation such as Index it would be easy to think that our job was solely to highlight the worst excesses of these despots, to shine a spotlight on their actions and to celebrate the work and activities of those inspirational people who stand up against this tyranny. And of course, that’s exactly what we were founded to do. But as the world moves on and technology and finance facilitate new ways of communicating to the world, Index also has a responsibility to investigate, analyse and expose the impact of some countries beyond their borders.
Over the course of the last year, Index’s attention has been drawn to the fact that there have been multiple high-profile examples of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) using its influence beyond its border in order to manipulate the world’s view of China and what it means to be Chinese:
Since the implementation of the National Security Law in Hong Kong in June 2020, universities in the UK and in the US have reportedly had to change the way they teach certain courses – grading papers by number not name, asking students to present anonymised work of others so nothing can be attributed to an individual student and limited debate in lectures. All in order to make sure that the students are protected, and their families aren’t targeted at home in China.
In September 2020 Disney released a new film – Mulan. This film not only represents Mulan as Han Chinese rather than Mongolian as she likely was in the legend, but it was also filmed, in part, in Xinjiang province, home of the persecuted Uighur community. Seemingly an effort to change the narrative on the ongoing Uighur genocide happening in Xinjiang.
In October 2020, a scheduled exhibition on Genghis Khan and the Mongol empire in Nantes, France was postponed – not because of Covid19 but because the CCP reportedly attempted to change the narrative of the exhibition, attempting to rewrite history.
It is clear that the CCP is using soft (sharp) power in a concerted effort to censor dissent and to create a narrative that is in keeping with Xi Jinping’s vision in an effort to secure international support for the CCP, which this year celebrates its 100th anniversary. We have no idea how strategic or vast this level of censorship is. What we do know is that it is happening across Europe and beyond.
It is in this vein that I’m delighted to be able to tell you about a new workstream for Index:
#BannedbyBeijing will seek to analyse and expose the extent to which China is trying to manipulate the conversation abroad.
Next week I’m delighted that we have an amazing panel to get the ball rolling and to establish how big an issue this is.