On Oct. 28, a Jeep drove into a crowd in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, killing five people and injuring 38. While the story is still breaking and details remain sparse, the response by both police and censors has been swift. On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, the official account of the Beijing Police Department wrote that the crash occurred at 12:05 p.m on Monday. By 1:09 p.m., it continued, “traffic at the scene had returned to normal.” Images on social media purporting to depict the accident show a fiery wreck mere feet from the giant portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong, which overlooks the square.
Photographs by Western photographers who arrived shortly thereafter (see top image) show plainclothes officers erecting green police barriers, obscuring the scene.
China’s thousands of online censors have been just as speedy — and frighteningly successful, even by their own standards. While some official accounts of the incident have survived online, many seemingly anodyne ones, including updates from mainstream media sources like the business magazine Caijing and newsmagazine China Weekly, have not. In fact, a search on Freeweibo.com, which tracks deleted Weibo posts, shows that many related tweets from widely-followed sources were removed so fast that they were able to generate only a handful of comments. One Weibo user complained, “Just because it’s Tiananmen, all related images have been deleted; is this necessary?” Chinese censors seem to think so, emphasizing rapidity over precision and ensnaring even innocuous posts in their net.
From the perspective of Chinese censors, this all makes perfect sense. Weibo’s interface groups all comments to a tweet in one place, allowing discussions by tens of thousands of users to coalesce around particularly popular or resonant posts. Authorities want to keep online chatter splintered instead. First, they never know what (potentially dangerous) direction such massive online discussion might take. They are also probably aware that Western media now watches Weibo closely: once a thought or meme goes viral, subsequent censorship is often insufficient, because Western reports will find a way to redound back into the Mainland. As the Chinese saying goes, “Once the word is out, four horses can’t run it down.”
The stakes are particularly high where Tiananmen Square is concerned. The massive public square in the center of Beijing was the site of the 1989 student uprising and subsequent crackdown, as well as major protests before and since, including the so-called May Fourth Movement in 1919 and, as recently as 2011, self-immolations by disgruntled citizens.
Despite Tiananmen’s sensitivity, Weibo users have found clever ways to discuss it. On June 4, 2013, the most recent anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, Chinese netizens photoshopped giant rubber ducks over a famous image of tanks facing down a 1989 protester.
But anniversaries are different, because both web users and censors have ample time to plot strategy. In that scenario, it’s almost inevitable that some of the memes and coded phrases invented by the Weibo-using masses will slip through, particularly those deployed in the middle of the night in China, when most censors are asleep. With this latest incident, where discussion remains highly fragmented, censors are likely receiving plaudits for a job well done.