China Blacks Out Tiananmen Coverage in Massive Media Lockdown
VOA’s Mandarin Service and news agencies contributed to this report.
The Chinese government on Tuesday went to extraordinary lengths to block media coverage and social media participation marking the 30th anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy protests on Tiananmen Square — even as dozens of ceremonies commemorating the event were held worldwide and in Hong Kong.
Pro-Communist party media including Xinhua, People’s Daily, Global Times, and CCTV had no mention of the anniversary. Internet in China, tightly controlled by the government, was mostly silent on Tiananmen mentions — save for scant postings that made it past censors.
Foreign news websites, including American news outlet CNN, were blocked on Chinese media streams. The CNN site is usually accessible in China, according to historical data from GreatFire.org. The financial information provider Refinitiv removed from its Eikon terminal any coverage from the news agency Reuters. People overseas could not post anything to popular Chinese social media sites concerning Tiananmen.
VOA Mandarin service reporters found a few people talking privately about Tiananmen on Chinese social media’s WeChat, with most careful to mask their identities.
As on past Tiananmen anniversary days, China has largely succeeded in wiping the events of June 3-4, 1989, from the public consciousness. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of people were killed when Chinese soldiers and tanks stormed the square to end a nearly two-month demonstration by students and workers demanding democratic change and the end of corruption. There are no memorials in China to Tiananmen. What happened there is not taught in school.
Erase the memory
Since 1989, Chinese officials have worked hard to erase the memory of Tiananmen from the national conscious.
“The main reason is because the government imposed violent rule over the people,” said Jiang Lin, 66, who was working as a reporter for an official army newspaper, the Liberation Daily, and was in the square in 1989.
“After the event, everyone who tried to speak the truth were labeled as liars spreading counter-revolutionary lies among the people,” she said in an interview Tuesday with VOA. “Those trying to speak the truth, many of them were put into prison.”
An array of security deterred any foreign media from broadcasting from the square on Tuesday. Extra checkpoints and street closures greeted tourists who showed up before 5 a.m. to watch the daily flag-raising ceremony at the square in the center of Beijing. In China, the anniversary of the crackdown passed like any other weekday.
Pompeo issues statement
Chinese media did not publish a statement from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, saluting what he called the “heroes of the Chinese people who bravely stood up thirty years ago … to demand their rights.” He said that U.S. hopes that China would become a more open and tolerant society have been dashed.
Chinese media also did not mention a virulent backlash from the Chinese government.
“The Chinese government has long had a clear conclusion about the political disturbance that occurred in the late 1980s,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in response to Pompeo. China’s economic success, “fully proves that the development path we chose is completely correct and has been firmly supported by the people.”
Geng, the foreign ministry spokesman, said that “some people in the U.S. always regard themselves as others’ teachers and interfere in other countries’ internal affairs under the guise of so-called democracy and human rights, while turning a blind eye to problems at home. The Chinese people have seen through their hypocrisy and sinister intentions.”
Geng’s statements, however, were not included in the official foreign ministry daily transcript to ensure that Chinese media would not publish them.
U.S. officials targeted
And while Chinese media exercised sweeping censorship in Chinese, some editors did take to social media to lash out in English at U.S. officials.
On Twitter, Hu Xijin, the Global Times chief editor, criticized U.S. statements saying: “This government of you has ruined the positive image of the U.S. The Chinese now deeply believe key U.S. officials are keen on destroying China’s development capability. When you preach Tiananmen incident and human rights, the purpose is the same as you talk about tariffs and Huawei.”
Under the rule of current President Xi Jinping, the government has tightened control over everything from religion to the internet in an apparent bid to make the Communist Party central to the future of China.
“I don’t think that in the foreseeable future there is the possibility for another mass movement against the regime, because the system of control is so complete,” said Andrew Nathan, a professor of Chinese politics at Columbia University.
Reporters Without Borders sounds off
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) slammed China this week for its curbs on press freedoms.
“In Beijing’s view, the role of journalists is just to relay state propaganda, not to question what governments do,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “If the democracies don’t resist, Beijing will end up imposing its alternative, undemocratic model and Chinese-style propaganda will gradually invade the world’s media, usurping journalism as we know it.”
Sarah Repucci, Senior Director for Research and Analysis for Freedom House, told VOA that China’s skill at press and social media censorship is becoming a worldwide commodity.
“What we’re seeing is that China is not only repressing the media at home, which we’ve been seeing for many years, and they continue to find new ways to censor and to shut down information,” she said. “But increasingly they are exporting their model of media repression to other countries. And they’re doing it in three main ways. They’re doing it by exporting their message and finding friendly outlets that will publish and broadcast that message. They’re doing it by putting pressure on journalists, but also diplomats and media owners in countries to censor, basically on Beijing’s behalf. And they’re also getting involved in the media markets of these countries.”
Refinitiv plays it safe
On Tuesday, the financial information provider Refinitiv decided not to risk losing its China business license and complied with a Chinese directive to sensor news from its major provider, Reuters.
“As a global business, we comply with all our local regulatory obligations,” Refinitiv said in a statement.
Michael Friedenberg, Reuters president, and Stephen Adler, editor-in-chief, said in a memo to staff that they had “spoken to Refinitiv and expressed our concern.”
“We continue to provide Refinitiv with the same scope of content that we always have, including stories relating to China, and Refinitiv’s decisions will not affect the breadth or quality of our coverage,” the news agency said.