June 4th, 2014 was the 25th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square protests/massacre in China, immortalized by the Tank Man photo. It was one of the pivotal moments in the 20th Century where, unlike other Communist regimes in Europe, the Chinese Communists were able to keep their hold on power.
The massacre is immortalized everywhere…but China, where it has been actively censored and suppressed to the point where people will literally run away before talking about it.
The Internet was supposed to kill censorship, but China has the “Great Firewall” and one of the most ambitious censorship operations in the world. I had always heard that China actively and successfully censors the Internet, but never understood exactly how it works or what it would feel like to live in a completely censored world a la 1984.
China has banned Twitter because they will not grant access to the sensors, so they have a homegrown version – Sina Weibo. It has 500 million users – including me, an American citizen living in Atlanta, GA.
Yes – unlike some Chinese sites, anyone can sign up for Weibo, granted that you agree to their terms of service (ie, the Chinese government can revise your account).
I’ve had an account for a couple years, but had never used it…mainly because Google Translate has a very hard time with Mandarin Chinese. I have 9 followers (you know the type of people who follow everyone, mixed in with a couple bots).
But on June 4th, I thought I’d do a test of China’s censors. And see exactly what happens.
Around 12:30pm on June 4th 2014, I logged into my Weibo account and went to the homepage portal and ran Google Translate.
Like Twitter, you can upload an image to send with your message, so I went and got an image of Tank Man and attached it to my message. I wrote a short message that “History will always remember the events of June 4th” and posted it.
I clicked off the portal and went to my profile to confirm it had been posted at 12:39pm. The URL was http://www.weibo.com/2418157660/B7vYr9ibm – I showed it to a couple of my co-workers. Checked the URL when logged out – it was live on the Internet.
I went and did some work and checked back at 1:00pm to see that 14 people had viewed it and did a form of “retweeting” – although after reading Weibo’s FAQs, I think it’s more of a “Favorite.” I took a screenshot calling it out. Real people had seen it. And it had traveled outside of my follower base.
I had a client call and a project to wrap up, but I checked my profile again at 2:30pm – and saw this.
Where on earth?! The post had simply disappeared. I put the URL in my browser and tried to go directly to it and saw this page.
After Google Translate went into action, I read a generic 404 Not Found page. For the technical readers out there, the URL passed through a temporary 302 redirect before going to the 404 page, which I found circumstantially interesting. The URL existed, but was being redirected at the time.
I went and checked my albums where I uploaded the photo – gone.
It was as if I had never posted anything at all. If I hadn’t taken screenshots and shown everything to my co-workers, I thought I might have gone crazy – or just dreamed the whole ordeal.
I was expecting a notification or some sort of warning, but there was just nothing, which was interesting in and of itself. I always imagined censorship as book burning or public edicts – something forceful and easy to identify.
China does it differently. It’s subtle, quick, apparently effective. Although there’s obviously no brute force (and as an American, I’m not going to have Chinese secret police show up) – it is honestly scarier than I’d have imagined. It’s straight out of 1984 – a deliberate re-writing of history done with the eraser instead of the flame.
One more reason to actually pay attention and be active in freedom of speech & press – and keeping the reins on intelligence agencies.
Follow me on Weibo here. Or preferably – express yourself and share this somewhere.