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Activists gathered at Tiananmen Square on May 14th, 1989, after an overnight hunger strike. The seven-week protests ended in a military crackdown on June 4th. (Picture: Catherine Henriette/AFP)

China’s Great Firewall threatens to erase memories of Tiananmen

VPN crackdown and sophisticated censorship make it harder to access outside information

This article originally appeared on ABACUS

Thirty years ago China ordered a brutal military crackdown on pro-democracy activists gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, leaving hundreds dead. The dramatic events that took place on June 4th, 1989, became one of the most defining moments in modern Chinese history. Yet today, the country’s Great Firewall is threatening to wipe out memories of the massacre.

For China’s tech-savvy 20-somethings, the outside internet -- untethered by the grips of government censors -- remains a primary source of sensitive information. People trying to escape the confines of China’s internet aren’t censors' only concern, though. They also worry that mentions of June 4th could slip through the country’s digital barrier.

Just one day ahead of the Tiananmen anniversary, throngs of overseas users complained on Weibo that they had trouble publishing posts. A pop-up message told them “server data synchronization might be delayed,” prompting some to turn to special apps that help them find their way back inside the Great Firewall. The irony of that wasn’t missed by users.  

How Weibo became China’s most popular blogging platform

“I’m under special care by Weibo again,” one user quipped. “I have waited for more than an hour [for my post to go through] but no update. I have to go back to the other side [of the wall] to send a Weibo post. 😊”
Activists gathered at Tiananmen Square on May 14th, 1989, after an overnight hunger strike. The seven-week protests ended in a military crackdown on June 4th. (Picture: Catherine Henriette/AFP)
In China, government censors aren’t directly involved in monitoring individual social media posts. Instead, they rely on companies such as Weibo to do the job, and those who fail to comply face punishment. In April, Weibo banned all posts with the word “Leica” after a promotional video featuring the camera brand appeared, depicting a Western journalist documenting the Tiananmen crackdown. Keywords relating to the protests have long been prohibited.

Some Chinese netizens are choosing to hunker down to avoid attracting attention as the censors kick into high gear.

Weiboscope, a monitoring site run by the University of Hong Kong's journalism school, recorded a social media post that said, “Being obedient, shutting up for a few days.”

It’s not just domestic companies that have faced accusations of enabling censorship. Earlier this year, an iconic song about the Tiananmen protests disappeared from Apple Music. And over the weekend, Twitter suspended the accounts of several critics of the Chinese government before apologizing for its “errors.”
For Chinese netizens who wish to circumvent Chinese censors to access outside information, one way is to use a virtual private network, or VPN. It’s supposed to mask a user’s browsing activity from the eyes of censors by encrypting and rerouting internet traffic. However, there are few existing VPN services able to evade detection by the Great Firewall, according to Paul Bischoff, a privacy advocate at As China’s censorship apparatus becomes more sophisticated, many VPN servers have ended up being blacklisted.

“It’s never been more difficult to use a VPN in China than it is today,” Bischoff said.

Those caught using VPNs without authorization in China also risk being fined. In January, it was revealed that a man was fined about US$160 for visiting overseas websites with a VPN.

Granted, some of China’s younger generation seem uninterested in traversing the confines of the firewall thanks to the country's many sophisticated apps and services that operate within it.

A 26-year-old teacher, who said she only learned about June 4th after watching a YouTube video while abroad, told the South China Morning Post, “You couldn’t find this information anymore after returning home unless you’re using a VPN… but I don’t usually do that because it’s too much trouble.”

As traces of Tiananmen memories fade from China’s internet, perhaps what happens in the physical world is a better reminder of the lives that were taken away three decades ago.

The Beijing Subway announced on Weibo that several exits of the Muxidi station are shut down this week until further notice, according to Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK. Older Beijingers would know that Muxidi was the place where many student protesters were killed during the 1989 crackdown.

For more insights into China tech, sign up for our tech newsletters, subscribe to our Inside China Tech podcast, and download the comprehensive 2019 China Internet Report. Also roam China Tech City, an award-winning interactive digital map at our sister site Abacus.