- The 1989 Democracy Movement in China that culminated in the infamous June 4 Tiananmen Square Massacre is one of the most consistently blocked topics on social media in China.
- In the days leading up to the 30th anniversary of June 4, YY, a popular live streaming platform in mainland China, updated its keyword blacklists with content focused on Democracy Movement related memorials and activism in Hong Kong.
- Censored keywords include references to locations of Tiananmen Movement protests and other commemoration activities, names of local advocacy groups in support of the Tiananmen Movement, and general references to local Hong Kong democracy movements.
2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Democracy Movement in China that culminated in the infamous June 4 Tiananmen Square Massacre in which the military carried out a brutal crackdown on student-led demonstrations calling for democratic reforms. The Chinese Red Cross estimated that 2,700 civilians were killed, but other sources point to a much higher toll. A confidential US government document, revealed in 2014, reported that a Chinese internal assessment estimated that at least 10,454 civilians were killed.
The event remains one of the most taboo topics in China. There are no references to the Tiananmen Square Massacre in any history textbooks and most university students in China have never heard of it. Attempts to discuss and commemorate the event on social media are met with aggressive censorship. Citizen Lab has been researching censorship on social media in China for over a decade. During this period, Citizen Lab has collected blacklisted keywords from a range of applications including microblogs, live streaming platforms, chat apps, and mobile games. Across industries and platforms, June 4 is one of the most consistently censored topics.
Of the applications that we have studied, YY, a popular live streaming platform in mainland China, has the largest number of June 4-related keywords. In the lead up to the 30th anniversary of June 4, YY updated its blacklist used to censor keywords with content focused on 1989 Democracy Movement related memorials and activism in Hong Kong, an important location for annual commemorations of June 4.
The most censored event on Chinese Social Media
Censorship of domestic social media platforms in China is operated through a system of intermediary liability or “self-discipline” in which companies are held liable for content on their platforms. Companies are expected to invest in technology and personnel to carry out content censorship according to government regulations. Failure to comply with regulations can lead to fines or revocation of operating licenses. Self-discipline works as a means for the government to push responsibility of information control to the private sector.
Across the keyword lists that Citizen Lab has collected from different applications and companies, there is very little overlap in identical keywords between the lists, suggesting that there is no centralized list of keywords provided to companies by authorities, which gives the companies a degree of flexibility in deciding what content to target and how to implement censorship. Despite this variance, there are some types of content that are consistently blocked across platforms. June 4 is one of these red line issues. Blacklisted keywords related to the event are found on the majority of applications studied by the Citizen Lab from 2009 onwards with a total of 3,584 June 4 keywords collected. 1
Events often act as catalysts for censorship on social media in China. Dynamic changes can also be observed in how content related to events is managed. For example, in research of censorship of other sensitive events such as the passing of Liu Xiaobo and the 19th National Communist Party Congress, we found that censorship increased during the events but as time passed the restrictions were eventually lifted. June 4 is treated differently. It is an event that is consistently and pervasively censored.
In previous work we analyzed in six chat platforms the proportion of censored keywords that related to the Tiananmen Square crackdown. The keyword blacklists collected from the platforms have been categorized using a common code book. Table 1 provides an overview of chat apps and live streaming platforms we studied, highlighting the total number of keywords and number of event and June 4-related keywords. Of these platforms, YY has the largest number of June 4-related keywords which account for 19 percent of keywords on its blacklist overall. These keywords are used to trigger message censorship in the chat feature on the application. They also trigger surveillance where the details of the offending message are “phoned home” to YY’s servers in a log containing the message’s content, the sender, and the receiver.
|Number of Keywords
|Number of June 4 Keywords
|Percentage of keywords overall
Table 1: Overview of censored keywords on chat applications and live streaming platforms
YY June 4 Blacklist Updates Focus on Hong Kong
Citizen Lab has been tracking updates to blacklisted keywords on YY since February 2015. Between January 1 to May 31, 2019, YY added 306 June 4-related keywords to its blacklist. Table 2 shows a breakdown of keywords by language.
Table 2: Number of blacklisted keywords related to June 4 by language.
We translated each keyword added in 2019 to English and, based on interpretations of the underlying context, grouped them into content categories. June 4-related keywords include general and coded references to the 1989 Tiananmen Movement, references to the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Movement, and symbolic figures of the Tiananmen movement. See Table 3 for examples of censored keywords.
|six four thirty
Table 3: Examples of censored keywords referencing the Tiananmen Movement and the 30th anniversary of the event.
Of these subcategories, content related to Hong Kong-based commemorations of June 4 and related activism account for 31.7 percent of June 4-related keywords added in 2019. These keywords include references to commemorations of the Tiananmen Movement initiated by Hong Kong advocacy groups, names of outspoken individuals and organizations that are in support of democracy movements in mainland China and Hong Kong, and content juxtaposing political events in Hong Kong with the Tiananmen Movement in mainland China. We look at each subcategory in detail below.
Hong Kong-Based Commemorations
Forty-six keywords made references to Hong Kong-based commemorations including local memorials, names, and location of annual marches, as well as June 4-related landmarks.
Censored references to memorial events include the annual June 4 Candlelight Vigil at Victoria Park and two events organized by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, “Kites for Democracy” (風箏行動) and “Patriotic Democratic Parade” (爱国民主大游行). Censored keywords also include references to locations of June 4-related marches such as “Legislative Council Complex Parking Lot” (立法會大樓外停車處), a protest took place near Hong Kong’s Legislative Council Complex against the Chinese Communist Party’s suppression of information related to the Tiananmen Movement, and generic terms such as “Marathon Team” (長跑隊), a symbolic marathon held in April 2019 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of June 4.
Keywords referenced June 4-related landmarks in Hong Kong such as “Chung Kiu Commercial Building” (中僑商業大廈), a building in Mong Kok that is in the vicinity of the June 4th Museum, and “Causeway Bay Times Square” (銅鑼灣時代廣場), a landmark for social movements in Hong Kong. In May 2010, local advocacy groups erected a Goddess of Democracy statue (a copy of a famous statue that was created during the 1989 protests) at Time Square in Causeway Bay. The Hong Kong government arrested 14 activists involved in the event on different charges.
Table 4 provides examples of keywords related to Hong Kong-based commemorations.
|Kite for democracy
|Patriotic Democratic Parade
|HKPTU Tseung Kwan O Center
|Yan Ming Court Underground Parking Lot
|Legislative Council Complex Parking Lot
|Chung Kiu Commercial Building
Table 4: Examples of censored keywords referencing Hong Kong-based June 4 commemorations
Democracy Advocates and Groups
Twenty keywords made references to names of individuals and organizations active in Hong Kong-based movements in support of June 4 and pro-democracy activism in mainland China and Hong Kong.
YY censored both the full names and abbreviations of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China in simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese (i.e., 支联会, 支聯會, 香港市民支援愛國民主運動聯合會). The Alliance is a pro-democracy organization that was established on 21 May 1989 in Hong Kong during the demonstration for the students’ protest in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. It has been organizing annual memorials and commemorations for June 4 victims, of which the candlelight vigil at Victoria Park is the most well-known and widely reported each year.
Other censored references to groups include “Mobile Co-Learning Classroom” (流動共學, MCLC), a non-governmental organization founded during the wave of student movements in Hong Kong in 2014. The group collaborated with the Alliance in 2019 to host a discussion about the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Movement, which aims to reflect the fate of democracy movements in mainland China and Hong Kong. We found that “Hui Po Keung” (許寶強), the name of a professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong who co-founded Mobile Co-Learning Classroom, was also censored on YY. Censored keywords also referenced “Albert Ho” (何俊仁), a Hong Kong solicitor and politician and the current chairman of the Alliance.
Table 5 provides examples of keywords in this category.
|Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China (The Alliance)
|Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China
|Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China
|Mobile Co-Leaning Classroom (MCLC)
|Hui Po Keung (co-founder of MCLC)
|Patrick Poon (researcher at Amnesty International)
|Albert Ho (current chairman of The Alliance)
|Chu Yiu-ming (baptism church minister who participated in a Hong Kong-based operation to help June 4 activists escape from Mainland)
Table 5: Examples of censored keywords referencing pro-democracy groups and advocates
We found that YY also censored references to local activism aimed at protecting democracy and rule of law in Hong Kong from Mainland influence. Table 6 shows examples of keywords under this category. Overall, these keywords reflect an increasing anxiety over the political future of Hong Kong and fear for the erosion of freedom of speech and rule of law in the region.
To reflect on the fate of China’s democracy movements 30 years after the Tiananmen protests, the Alliance and Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union co-organized a contest asking students to produce short videos on the theme “National Status Quo, Hong Kong, Future” in early 2019. We found blacklisted keywords referencing some of these student-made videos including “Fifty, No changes” (伍拾·不變), a critical look at how Hong Kong would change after a shift to a socialist system in 2047, and “Story of 21st Century Police” (21世紀警察故事), a satire that depicts how the crime rate in Hong Kong dropped to zero with the help of the central government and advanced surveillance technologies.
Censored keywords also include references to local activism aimed at protecting democracy and rule of law in Hong Kong. Keywords ranged from past movements such as the Umbrella Movement (e.g., “黄色雨伞” or Yellow Umbrella), a series of protests fighting for universal suffrage in Hong Kong in 2014, to recent efforts to prevent the passing of the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019 (e.g., “逃犯条例” or Fugitive Offenders Ordinance). The Bill was proposed by the Hong Kong government in February 2019 to request for surrender of a Hong Kong suspect in a homicide case in Taiwan. The government proposed to establish a mechanism for transfers of fugitives not only for Taiwan, but also for Mainland China and Macau that are not covered in existing law. The proposed amendment caused a wide range of concerns about the erosion of Hong Kong’s legal framework and its business climate.
Table 6 provides examples of keywords in this category.
|Fifty No Changes
|21st Century Police Story
|Became the last call
|Fugitive Offenders Ordinance
|Fugitive Offenders Ordinance
Table 6: Examples of censored keywords referencing pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong
Censorship of June 4 on social media in China has become an expected routine. The increased focus YY placed on Hong Kong-based June 4 memorials and activism stands out. It is unclear why Hong Kong-related content became one of the main censorship targets of YY, a Chinese live-streaming service used mainly by mainland users. However, given the sensitivity of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Movement, it is evident that social media companies faced direct and indirect pressure from the government to properly manage online content.
Hong Kong-based civil society groups have been long-time outspoken advocates for the vindication of the Tiananmen Movement. Hong Kong itself has been an important source of support for pro-democracy and other social movements in mainland China. The increased censorship of June 4-related activism in Hong Kong activism may be due to YY proactively blocking content it envisioned would become viral around the anniversary. It may also reflect a general increase of Chinese government pressure on freedom of speech in Hong Kong.
As the world recognizes the 30th anniversary of June 4, the continued censorship of the event on social media in China shows the tension between those vowing not to forget and efforts by the government to erase this piece of history from collective memory.
Keyword data available on Github
View a curated selection of censored images and keywords that tell the story of the 1989 Democracy Movement on Net Alert
This project was supported by Open Society Foundations.
1. Of the social media platforms in China that Citizen Lab has studied only one, GuaGua (a live streaming platform), did not have June 4-related keywords. This application also had the smallest keyword black list overall (52 keywords) and did not update its lists. For further details see Every Rose Has Its Thorn: Censorship and Surveillance on Social Video Platforms in China.