Censors at China’s top Twitter-like microblogging site blocked searches for “big yellow duck” and removed the candle icon used to express mourning as part of the country’s annual June 4 David-and-Goliath face-off pitting Chinese Internet users eager to memorialize the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters against China’s sprawling online censorship apparatus.
With the arrival of the anniversary on Tuesday, Sina Corp.’s Weibo appeared to have rethought a brief experiment with more sophisticated filtering. Late last week, previously blocked searches on the site for terms related to the crackdown suddenly began to produce innocuous, carefully selected results. But beginning Monday night, those searches went back to being blocked.
Sina’s censors were also busy hand-deleting Tiananmen-related images from the site, including a series of tongue-in-cheek re-imaginings of the iconic “Tank Man” photo, taken as Chinese military vehicles were attempting to leave the square.
In one version, produced by cartoonist Hexie Farm, a blue bird from the Rovio game “Angry Birds” stands before a line of porcine tanks, middle feather raised in a defiant gesture. Other users posted various recreation of the Tank Man tableau using Legos.
Among the most striking: An image that replaced the tanks with a line of oversized rubber ducks – a reference to the giant yellow duck currently occupying Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor that has sparked a flood of duck-related merchandise and cheap imitations on the mainland.
Sina did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
With Hong Kong preparing to hold its annual June 4 vigil, Beijing-based AIDS activist and prominent dissident Hu Jia on Monday issued a call for mainland Chinese to wear black to mark the anniversary. “I hope that people traveling freely in Hong Kong will go to Victoria Park and make an appearance at the event,” Mr. Hu wrote on Twitter, which is blocked in China but accessible through software that circumvents China’s Internet censors.“Mainlanders who can’t get to Hong Kong should wear black to subtly mourn the June 4th incident.”
Mr. Hu later joked that buying black t-shirts in China might soon require real-name registration, a reference to recent efforts by authorities in the southern city of Kunming, eventually scrapped under public pressure, to prevent protest against a proposed chemical plant by requiring people to register with their identity cards to purchase face masks and white t-shirts. Protesters had previously used face masks as props and worn t-shirts sprayed with antipollution slogans.
Searches for “black shirt” were also blocked on Sina Weibo on Tuesday.
Despite the censorship and persistent efforts by authorities to downplay the significance of the 1989 protests, which Beijing describes as a “counterrevolutionary riot,” interest in the crackdown appears to remain high among social media users. According to GreatFire.org, an organization that monitors Chinese censorship, searches for “6 4” – for June 4th – briefly made an appearance on Sina Weibo’s list of top search terms on Tuesday morning.
Unable to talk openly about the crackdown, a number of Sina Weibo users instead posted comments noting the arrival of dark clouds over Beijing and the southern city of Guangzhou around noon on Tuesday.
“’Heaven sees what the people see, Heaven hears what the people hear,’” wrote historian Zhang Lifan, quoting from the Shangshu, one the five classic Confucian texts. “Today, Heaven’s heart feels what’s in the people’s hearts.”
Added another Sina Weibo user: “This seems to mean that something happened in the past, but I can’t search for it.”
– Josh Chin. Follow him on Twitter @joshchin