Tiananmen 21 Years On

Today’s 21st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre has not passed without controversy.

Tiananmen Square cartoon

This cartoon, published on Tuesday in the Southern Metropolis Daily was pulled from the newspaper’s website after it started attracting online interest. The image was part of a series commemorating International Children’s Day but it clearly references Tank Man, the lone protester who stood in front of a column of tanks, now the emblematic image of the massacre.

This is a brave move for the Guangdong-based newspaper, which has reputation for being one of the most independent news outlets in mainland China. However the decision to run the print edition and pull the online one has raised questions; was the cartoons publication a mistake — perhaps an overworked editor missed the underlying symbolism — or was the paper simply forced to pull the online version due to government pressure? So far, the Southern Metropolis Daily has declined to comment on the situation.

Elsewhere the authorities have kept tight control around the physical domains of Tiananmen Square and Beijing; on the geography-based social networking website foursquare.com users have staged online vigils, “checking in” to the virtual Tiananmen Square in a show of solidarity. In response, the Chinese government today blocked access to the website from mainland China. Around the world, protests have taken place in cities such as Hong Kong and Tokyo, where one of the original student demonstrators, Wu’er Kaixi, was arrested for trespassing on the Chinese Embassy. Wu’er, an activist of Uighur descent currently lives in exile in Taiwan.

In a strange twist, it was announced today that the June 4th diaries of China’s premier at the time, Li Peng, will be published this month. Secrecy still surrounds the decision to use the military to crush the student-led protests, and the Chinese government still refuses to publish verifiable figures for the number of injured or killed civilians during the protests. Although doubts have been cast on the book’s authenticity, the diaries are rumoured to provide an insight into senior officials thinking during the crisis and background into how government decisions were reached, including the deployment of martial force in the Square. In one of the passages, Li Peng is quoted as saying he will “sacrifice” his life in order to prevent another Cultural Revolution from occurring. If the book turns out to be genuine, it could be the government’s attempt to justify its actions 21 years ago.

Journalist's Yahoo accounts hacked in China

Journalists and activists working in China and Taiwan report that their Yahoo accounts have been disabled after hackers gained access last Wednesday. They believe information from their accounts may have been downloaded for further scrutiny. The New York Times, Andrew Jacobs also reported that a mail forwarding service was secretly activated on his account, this would have allowed the hackers to read future correspondence by forwarding his emails.

The cyberattacks mirror the hacking campaign which cause Google to announce it was pulling out of China and add to the pressure on Yahoo to take a stand on Chinese freedom of expression record.

In a response to Reuters, Yahoo spokesperson Dana Lengkeek did not comment on the nature of the attacks, but simply defended the company’s position to protect “user security and privacy”. On Twitter Kathleen MacLaughlin, another journalist targeted in the attack, said that she was “annoyed” with the “deafening silence from Yahoo”. The company had refused to disclose any information regarding the attacks on her account.

Unlike Google, Yahoo keeps its servers inside mainland China, this means the government has more jurisdiction and control over its operations. This feature was pivotal in the arrest of Chinese journalist Shi Tao in 2004, in which sensitive government documents about the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Protests was emailed from his private Yahoo account to an overseas human rights group. Upon the Chinese government’s request, Yahoo immediately turned over Shi Tao’s account information, his IP address, as well as the physical address of the computer which the email was sent from. Cases such as this, and Yahoo’s unquestioning complicity with China’s censoring of their search engine results have lead to several internet campaigns calling for web users to boycott Yahoo.

A Guardian report last Friday, included details of leaked Chinese documents outlined new state press guidelines regarding the treatment of future incidents relating to Google and the internet.  Therefore, it is of no surprise to find that as of today, neither Xinhua or China Daily have covered this current Yahoo story on any of their English or Chinese-language websites.

China's two faces

The recent dispute between Google and China has been covered in great depth by the international media, and China’s own state-owned news networks such as, Xinhua, have also been diligently reporting on the unfolding events.  A search of Xinhua’s English-language website reveals a handful of fairly unbiased news stories, including a piece stating that Google’s actions will not damage Sino-Chinese relations.

However, a search for 谷歌 –– Google’s Chinese name –– on Chinese-language versions of the same website reveals a totally different story. On the same day, 23 March, Xinhua was reassuring its English readers that the row would remain a purely commercial concern “unless someone politicizes the issue”, Xinhua published another story only available in Chinese, entitled “Google has already turned into a political tool”. That article argues that America uses Google to promote its political ideology and enforce a  cultural hegemony, it claims the company’s actions are a direct attempt to subvert the Chinese government.

In another damning article, entitled “China rejects the politics of Google” published on 19 March even before Google redirected traffic to its Hong Kong servers, Beijing reporters accuse the business giant of being intricately linked to US intelligence. The “freedom of information” argument, they declare, is simply a ruse to indoctrinate Chinese society with American ideals and values. Articles such as these and many more are not available in translation on its English website.

The Chinese government is unhappy its censorship procedures and appalling human rights record have been spotlighted during the controversy. The Guardian today reports that the government has released internal guidelines for any future coverage of the dispute by the press.

So English readers of Chinese news websites are provided with balanced reportage, promoting the image of China as a country of growing openness and dialogue. However, for its Chinese audiences, the news channels make available little more than state-endorsed propaganda.

This discrepancy between its approaches to international and national news reveals the sophistication of the Chinese state media. A deeper examination of press agencies such as Xinhua, shows that they are nothing more than a way for the Chinese government to simultaneously control its own public image, and the national public.