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Tiananmen Square massacre anniversary: China chokes Google, social chatter

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Rose Powell

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Ducks take the place of tanks in one of many banned images search terms in China.

Ducks take the place of tanks in one of many banned images search terms in China. Photo: Weibo

Chinese citizens are facing an even tougher internet firewall as the ruling Communist party tries to enforce silence and amnesia on a seething nation striving to grieve and commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

The firewall, which blocks many sites including Twitter and Facebook, now blocks all of Google’s services from search and Google maps to the more innocuous calendar or slides apps.

The Lego recreation of the iconic Tiananmen Square photo.

The Lego recreation of the iconic Tiananmen Square photo. Photo: Weibo

The block was revealed by internet access activist group GreatFire, which published a report into the Google block earlier this week. 

“It is not clear that the block is a temporary measure around the anniversary or a permanent block. But because the block has lasted for 4 days, it’s more likely that Google will be severely disrupted and barely usable from now on,” details the blog post.

The block has been confirmed by Google’s own transparency report, which shows a notable drop in traffic to all services, including search, YouTube and Google Maps since June 1.

Google's Transparency Report for the last week.

Google's Transparency Report for the last week.

Local search engines are heavily censored.

But Chinese activists have long been locked in a fraught game to stay ahead of censorship efforts by the ruling Communist party, which views the event as a an act of civil disturbance rather than a pro-democracy movement.

Censors have banned many references to the event including:

  • China has a standing block for versions of the June 4th date in a range of languages, including even the roman numerals VIIV.
  • The number 64 (for 4th June) and formulas leading to the number such as 65 minus 1 are blocked.
  • Activists have previously substituted dates such as May 35th, but even the short form “535” have been identified and banned.
  • Words such as “this day”, “that year” and “special day” and emoticons symbolising remembrance such as a burning candle have been blocked.
  • Even more unusual phrases used on platforms such as China’s social network Weibo have been identified and shut dow
  • Last year, “big yellow duck” was blocked after activists substituted ducks for the tanks in Jeff Widener's iconic photo of a man standing in front of a line of armoured vehicles.
  • A Lego recreation of the photo was banned shortly after it surfaced on Weibo last year.

Despite the bans, people living in China use ISP re-routers to evade censorship and can still access Google search through a hidden version of the service maintained by GreatFire, hosted on Amazon Web Servers.

The struggle between the world’s two emerging superpowers is not new.

In 2010, Google moved its Chinese search engine operations from mainland China to Hong Kong to remove the need to conform to China’s censorship requirements.

There were also reports the Chinese government had hacked into the Google-hosted email accounts of democracy activists just prior to the move. Gmail has been blocked ever since.

They briefly blocked access to all of Google’s offerings for 12 hours in the lead up to a meeting of the Communist Party’s executives in 2012.

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