Tiananmen Anniversary

On the 4th of June every year since 1989, Hong Kong holds the largest annual Tiananmen Square protests on the globe; tens of thousands of democracy protestors, as well as people who just want to remember what happened, fill up Victoria Park in the central suburb of Causeway Bay. The event has never really attracted attention outside of Hong Kong and certainly not in China where even referencing the anniversary is a dangerous taboo.

Regardless, every year, depending on the state of affairs in China, protesters ranging from the tens to hundreds of thousands camp on the grass for a solemn, respectful and passionate display of remembrance. Chants are exchanged, songs sung, speeches from real and escaped martyrs alike are read and most importantly promises are made; that the people of Hong Kong will resolutely stop anything similar to Tiananmen from ever happening in their city.

When I arrived at Victoria Park, late after work on the 4th of this month I had never seen anything like the side of Hong Kong that I saw that night. Many of the protests I had seen previously looked like a parade of the small and disenfranchised; there seemed more police than protestors in attendance. What looked like little more than a few bus-loads of wizened old aunts and uncles carried coloured placards and banged drums as they marched past the lines of disinterested policemen holding back the traffic. The Hong Kong democracy movement seemed in sad and disheartening shape, and I believe that many of the tourists who saw the march that day believed it was for a small religious sect, celebrating a holy day.

But that night, as I descended the escalator from my work, not more than three blocks away, I knew that tonight was different and that I was wrong. The democracy movement in Hong Kong is no small sect and it is obviously July 4th that is their holy day. The streets leading up to the park were more congested than anything I’ve seen in my life, and then my companion and I got to the park itself.

This year was the largest commemoration since 1989, over 180,000 people, not just the people who had lived through Tiananmen, but passionate teenagers too attended. It was not just for Hong Kong natives but also Western, Taiwanese and Chinese people. In the space of time it took us to climb a commanding power box to sit with the photographers, all my misconceptions about Hong Kong people having no social heart, nor any political aspirations, were gone. And as the chants grew louder, the camera flashes flared at once and 80,000 candles rose in union I had the feeling that the entire expanse of what I was seeing was sincere, and right and good and that it dwarfed any admiration I’d had for anything I’d seen in the West since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Outside the sincerity of Victoria Park the cynicism, censorship and cronyism that I’d previously come to attribute to Hong Kong was working hard to dispel the message of the July 4th however. As has come to be expected the police force’s official count for the protest was at least half that of those who turned up, secondly Hong Kong’s pro-Bejing, crony-bound government continued their ‘seen but not heard’ stance when it comes to democracy in Hong Kong. The CEO had no comment regarding the commemoration, nor regarding the claims made therein; that Hong Kong was becoming less democratic and more stifling a place to live, as Beijing has slowly pushed for greater social prevalence in the city.

This years Tiananmen vigil, Victoria Park Hong Kong

At the same time blatant blocks on the Weibo accounts of pro democracy dissidents in China, coupled with attacks on the facebook accounts of many Hong Kong-based democracy protestors, effectively silenced some of the movement’s online voice in the lead up to the event. But that was nothing compared to what was to come. Three days after the protests, just after he had criticized the CPC in his first ever interview, the highly suspicious “accidental death” of Li Wanyang; the longest serving Tiananmen Square inmate did even more damage to Hong Kong- mainland relations.

The new mainland born Editor-in-Chief of the South China Morning Post and high ranking Communist Party member; Wang Xiangwei only served to exacerbate the problem after being accused of the purposeful underwriting of the event to limit the damage to Beijing. Making things worse, a sub-editor’s questioning on the issue resulted in this leaked tirade; “I don’t have to explain to you anything. I made the decision and I stand by it. If you don’t like it, you know what to do.” Two weeks later, after his reply hit the headlines of other publications world-wide, the South China Morning Post ran the issue in full and Mr Wang, shamed by the attention, attempted to talk the rhetoric down from ‘self censorship’ to ‘de-sensationalising’ a story until all the facts were known.

Considering all of this; that their government doesn’t care about their freedoms, that activists are still being threatened, censored and possibly killed and that their own media is being castrated by Beijing, the Li Wanyang issue is the next focal point for visceral levels of discontent in Hong Kong. Originally deemed a ‘suicide’, the angry and unprecedentedly large response to his death by pro- democracy activists in China and specifically in Hong Kong caused a huge CPC back-down and the promise of a criminal investigation. It also bodes well for the July 1st, Hong Kong handover anniversary protests, and you know that I’ll be there for that too.


CPC alternatives to censorship

Overn the last decade internet use has spiked in China, from just over half a million users in the mid to late 90’s to over 500 million  now. This huge multitude of people online has no doubt caused Beijing a great deal of anxiety. As a source of public dissent and promulgation of unsanctioned ideas the internet is a real threat to their hegemony. Because of this China has seen a number of solutions to fix the problem of ‘internet freedom’ over the years; in 1997 the CPC first started to regulate the use of the internet, the next year the ‘Golden Shield’ (Great Firewall) project was conceived and completed in 2006/2008. While in 2009 the ‘Green Dam” programme, which called for the mandatory inclusion of surveillance microchips in all new computers almost passed into law.

These solutions all had their limitations; the 1997 regulations only gave China the framework of laws and their prosecution, not the methods for action, the Great Firewall can be circumvented by proxy servers, subverted ideologically through subtlety and sarcasm and served as a focus point for more criticism. Meanwhile, the Green Dam project was a disaster; it was unwieldy and ineffective in many of its parameters, obviously and poorly plagiarised, a potentially huge security risk and poorly disguised an ‘anti-pornography measure’, as such it was unpopular and was scrapped during the testing phase.

The subtleties of the internet seemed to stifle complete control, but at some point, shortly before Green Dam, Beijing stumbled upon the best answer so far and it had nothing to do with new coding or programmes. Beijing’s solution involved the adding of a social element to the equation. In 2004 the Publicity Department of Changsa city, seemingly of their own volition, hired China’s first ‘anonymous internet commentators’; a group whose job was to surreptitiously post positive comments and discredit complaints. Over the next three years this method proved so effective in stifling online dissent that it grew exponentially, organically spreading to different parts of the country and through the different channels of the CPC’s body politic. From every regional and city council to news sites, forums, chat rooms and social networking sites, CPC commentators are now commonly found on foreign news sites too.

An internet commentator conference broadcast on Chinese Television

Originally paid 0.50 Yuan a post, the writers are now popularly (and derisively) known as the “50 Cent Party”, and their goal, according to the head of Guangzhou’s City Inspectors Committee Li Yangui,  is to “track and analyze… public opinion, prevent the spread of undesirable information” and ultimately provide “positive guidance of public opinion”. Highlighting their importance to China’s internet policy, three years after the germination of the concept in 2007 Premier Hu Jintao called for the proliferation of this method at a major politburo conference. CPC support of this method undoubtedly lies in its ability to effectively direct online opinion towards any narrative end almost anonymously. This use of anonymity, rather than just deleting or blocking offensive material, serves to effectively remove the spectre of CPC heavy-handedness and tricks users into thinking the pro-party talking points they’re reading are the unbiased opinions of regular netizens. In a widely circulated, leaked communiqué that says much about the ‘scapegoating’ culture of the CPC, the stated true objective of the ‘50 Centers’ was revealed; to undermine the influence of “Taiwanese democracy”; as if China’s societal problems stemmed from anything Taiwan has done. Included in the supposed missive was also this incredible list of guidelines:

  1.   To the extent possible make America the target of criticism. Play down the existence of Taiwan.
  2. Do not directly confront [the idea of] democracy; rather, frame the argument in terms of “what kind of system can truly implement democracy.”
  3.  To the extent possible, choose various examples in Western countries of violence and unreasonable circumstances to explain how democracy is not well-suited to capitalism.
  4. Use America’s and other countries’ interference in international affairs to explain how Western democracy is actually an invasion of other countries and [how the West] is forcibly pushing [on other countries] Western values.
  5.  Use the bloody and tear-stained history of a [once] weak people [i.e., China] to stir up pro-Party and patriotic emotions.
  6. Increase the exposure that positive developments inside China receive; further accommodate the work of maintaining [social] stability.

Estimations by some experts range anywhere from tens to hundreds of thousands of full and part-time anonymous commentators working in China, according to local Chinese news media some large cities and regions openly employ hundreds of writers. On the other hand, some government and media sources deny the existence of paid commentators. In an interview with the Global Times, a former employee of the Public Security Bureau, Mrs Wang, implied that the 50 Cent Party was really an unorganised collection of pro-party citizens working outside of the state. Contradicting herself, Wang then went on to state that paid commentators are a real phenomenon; “It is necessary to have the commentators because sometimes truth may hurt social stability”.

Despite the occasional denials, the existence of the 50 Cent Party  is considered a well known fact, and the proliferation of the concept seems to imply that it is successful and here to stay. The concept does have its detractors and debateable weaknesses however; Hu Yong in an article by The Global Times argues that the commentators, because they are anonymous, dilute the veracity of their personas and that their very existence only makes “the public more aware of them”. On platforms like Twitter, he says, their anonymity means that “they can’t work if nobody follows them” and if they weren’t anonymous and people knew they are ‘50 Centers’ no one would. He concludes by saying that the ‘50 Cent Party’ has actually damaged the practice of ‘opinion guidance’ in China; it now “carries the stigma of immorality… commentators were only doing it for the money.” Furthermore, awareness of the ‘50 cent’ concept has damaged the reputation of China internationally, suspiciously pro-CPC comments by anonymous commentators are now often met with derision on Western news sites. As Zhang Shengjun, a politics professor complained in an article on the Global Times; the 50 Cent tag “has become a baton waved towards all Chinese patriots”. These are the eventual and obvious consequences of being duplicitous, no one will trust you.

Meanwhile the Chinese people have to live with the worry that their government are distorting and manipulating the news even in the commentary sections of their favourite websites.

The CPC’s Media Blackout Strategy

China’s English news publications are now well funded players on the international news scene. On a daily basis they comprehensively cover a wide range of foreign and local issues from a pro-PRC perspective and can generally be relied upon in their editorials and news reports to echo the current mindset of Beijing. ‘Relied upon’, except when the issue of Chinese social disharmony and related policing matters comes to the fore; on this topic the country’s state – controlled media has taken an active role in downplaying the news. A noticeable pattern of non-recognition or the hiding and drip-feeding of worrying local events has arisen in China’s media. It is so prevalent in fact, that, now the only way to hear about Chinese social issues in any detail is through the foreign press.

Chinese issues ranging from industrial scale food poisonings, factory worker suicides, rioting, online political protest, attacks on kindergarten and school age children and even bombings have now become leading news pieces for Western papers and bloggers. Meanwhile, on the mainland these same events are either spun, ignored, underwritten or hidden in the back pages (sometimes all four across the media scpectrum) of PRC papers. Particularly puzzling are the local news events that garner no coverage in the country but are not obviously anti PRC or even political in nature. The resulting question to be asked is; is there a policy of PRC media blackouts on all internal troubles in the country?

Invariably the conclusion from outside reporters has been yes, this underreporting of local events is a deliberate policy from Beijing, a theory seemingly confirmed by a supposed online essay written by a frustrated Beijing journalist: “We’re just a bunch of shameless spectators watching these murderers take the stage one after another – and during all of this spectacle, forced to remain silent.” The CPC policy of media blackouts has become so distasteful and obvious that even the Chinese blogosphere has got involved, with some bloggers either tacitly or directly blaming the government for its its deception.

Recent Chinese news events in the foreign press but not covered or underreported by the Chinese media :

Mass suicides at Foxxcon factories.

Knife attacks on kindergartens and schools.

Jasmine revolution protests.

Terrorist strikes on government buildings and banks.

Sanlu Milk and infant formula poisonings.

A simple reading of the situation is that this subject; ‘evidence of disharmony in China’, is detrimental to the image of a government that has ‘ultimate’ control over culture and society. Beijing, as the architect of modern Chinese culture looks powerless and is also (via its monopoly on culture, education and media) directly at fault for disharmony in a way that more liberal governments aren’t. The PRC’s ongoing response to its culpability in these matters has been to attempt to shut down all discussion and diffusion of the issue or when it couldn’t; to emphasize strong government responses, deemphasize dangers and assign external blame. This behaviour will continue until a solution can be found that either solves the societal issues associated with the recent cultural changes in the China or exonerates the government of blame. Noticeably this issue has highlighted the PRC’s surprising inability to shut down these issues despite their media powers, and that it is being subjected to the kind of criticism that it was seeking to avoid, particularly at home.