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Twitterers in China : What the Censorship on the 20th Anniversary of Tiananmen is Really Achieving

June 3, 2009

The web exploded yesterday with the news that in preparation for the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the Chinese government blocked social networking sites including Twitter, Flickr, and Hotmail. Ironically it was the frustrated, angry, and sometimes joyously defiant “tweets” from many expats living in China that helped spread the news of the censorship.

“We call it being ‘harmonized’ here,” said one Twitter user , an America living in South China, where his teaching contract forbids him from political discourse and therefore wishes to remain anonymous. Many of the most tech-savvy are able to get around the ban using various proxy servers, connecting to a server in another country, and even using Twinkle, the i-Phone application for Twitter. Earliest reports suggested that the platform TweetDeck was being used as a workaround, but all who we spoke to said that service was intermittent or that it wasn’t working at all.

The South China professor says he sees an added curiosity in his students as a result of the censorship. “I have often said that the next internal revolution will come as a result of the myriad communication tools available like 3-G. That and a growing dissatisfaction with censorship will force change,” he says. “At the very least the outages have caused students to ask far more questions than ever before.”

Those discussing the issue on Twitter followed their posts with the hashtag #GFW for “great firewall” as a way to organize the conversation and so others could join in. But some worry that the tag is being used against rogue Tweeters as China discovers the tag and removes offending posts.

One active Twitter user, Robert Bono, a business analyst studying for his Masters at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, says that after years of staying silent, he has had enough of the blanket censorship.

“There is a generally accepted, but entirely publicly unspoken awareness that the media here presents a false picture of both internal and external affairs,” he says. “In terms of the average Chinese citizen, most here are aware of the events that took place twenty years ago in Tiananmen Square, but are too scared to discuss it publicly. It is Orwellian double-think on a massive scale.”

The government has taken numerous other measures to keep protests to a minimum, including scheduling exams for June 4th so students will be occupied in the classroom, and outright banning them from giving any interviews to the foreign press.

Bono says that this latest act of censorship has helped him decide to leave China for good, so he is “not particularly worried about any reprisals from the government” for speaking out on the issue.

When asked if he thinks the latest internet blockades will be able to successfully stop the flow of information or any commemorations relating to Tiananmen, one American living in China, who prefers to be known only by his Twitter name, WeirdChina, says that in the long term, it won’t make a difference, but the problem in China is that many people don’t even know they are being kept from information in the first place.

Junde Yu, a web entrepreneur from Singapore living in Guangzhou, created this now viral TwitPic of a crab catching the Twitter bird. The river crab is a symbol for censorship in China, and Yu says that although the governments main aim is to stop grassroots or student movements hoping to commemorate the massacre 20 years ago, there are few movements for them to worry about. No doubt the Chinese government took note of instances like the the revolt in Moldova latter dubbed the “Twitter Revolution” when preparing their censors for this anniversary.

Some have found a way to circumvent the seemingly all encompassing censorship. In remembrance of the of the unknown man made famous by the photo of him standing in the way of four military tanks, many say they will wear white shirts and blue pants in Beijing and other parts of China tomorrow.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.