It's no secret that the Internet in China is subject to extreme restrictions. From around the clock monitoring of search engine use to the outright banning of dissident websites, the Chinese government exerts an alarming amount of control over how its citizens access information. However, the limitations don’t stop there—the government also restricts the subversive potential of social media such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook by only allowing Internet users in the country to access government-approved and controlled alternatives such as Renren and Sina Weibo. The result is, as The Economist puts it, a distinctly Chinese Internet that is being watched over and manipulated. While this approach poses an obvious threat to freedom of expression for the Chinese population, the evolution of the Internet into an authoritative source of knowledge has created a whole new level of concern—the denial of information that is readily accessible to most other people around the world.
Furthermore, the Chinese government has declared any discussion of China’s recent political past, such as the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre, counterrevolutionary. As a result, a significant amount of the country’s history is heavily restricted online, and citizens are unable to engage in the kind of debate that marks a free society. However, although China’s incredible censorship system presents an impediment to communication, it is a challenge that has not proven to be insurmountable. In fact, the Chinese people are creative in overcoming these obstacles to free expression. By phonetically spelling out words using characters of the Latin alphabet, developing code words for events and disguising their posts on social media outlets by using homonyms, Chinese citizens have often managed to stave off, at least temporarily, official censors in their quest to be heard.
But the Internet is not just a platform for communication. It also serves as a huge bank of information and an invaluable resource for extra-curricular learning. In this respect, many Chinese citizens are not as readily able to overcome the isolating effects of government censorship. After all, how can you discuss something you don’t even know exists?
While those who grew up in an era that predates the Great Firewall, a term that refers to China’s complex and increasingly extensive Internet censorship system, may recognize the gaps in public information simply by having lived through the censored history, subsequent generations cannot operate on the same level of historical awareness. Born into an age that sees the heavily edited bank of information available on the Chinese Internet as the absolute source of knowledge, this generation has fallen victim to a system of censorship that succeeds in impeding not only the flow of knowledge but, more detrimentally, its discovery.
The June 4 Tiananmen Square anniversary marks an especially poignant occasion to consider the magnitude of this censorship. The 1989 incident saw the Chinese government impose martial law and deploy tanks, teargas and gunfire, killing untold thousands in an attempt to clear the square in central Beijing following the escalation of a student protest movement. It could arguably be the single event the Chinese government most wants to strike from the historical record. As such, government attempts to erase it have been notably thorough — blocking images on Google searches, foreign websites that freely discuss the event, and even obstructing Internet access to reports on the Shanghai stock market when it happened to close its day down 64.89 points (6/4/89). Nevertheless, the public's attempts to circumvent the censors have been equally dedicated, with people developing code words such as "candle" to signify mourning and solidarity and “May 35” to surreptitiously discuss the event online.
These tricks to outsmart the censors work best for those who are already familiar with Tiananmen Square; they know what they want to discuss and simply need to find a means. But those born after the fact are wholly unaware, from any official source, of its occurrence. To have any inclination toward discussing Tiananmen, or to know which code words to use in the process and why, this generation first needs to be educated about the ordeal. Herein lies the second threat that Chinese digital censorship in China poses to freedom of expression: a heavily-censored search engine is clearly not an adequate source of information for a Chinese citizen born after the Tiananmen Square massacre to learn about it.
If this history is not being taught in schools, there are few educational outlets to which this generation can turn. Consequently, their understanding of the country’s historical narrative is severely lacking. In 2005, journalists from PBS Frontline showed a group of Beijing University students the iconic image of an unidentified Tiananmen Square protester standing up to military tanks—widely recognizable to different generations around the world. Most of these students had no knowledge of what was being depicted; some asked if the photo was of a parade, or even if it was a work of art.
This alarming revelation demonstrates a new challenge to free expression in China. In the digital age, which sees the Internet not only as a repository of information but increasingly as one of its primary sources, the ability to freely access knowledge is an increasingly important component of free expression as a whole, a fundamental human right. And as long as digital censorship in China persists, this right is consistently violated, and free expression as whole is compromised. After all, the right to speak is meaningless if there isn't much to speak about.
Washington Post | Witnesses to Tiananmen Square struggle with what to tell their children
By William Wan, June 2, 2013
The Globe and Mail | China’s censors block Tiananmen references on massacre's anniversary
By Tu Thanh Ha, June 4, 2012
Citizen Lab | Censoring a commemoration: what June 4-related search terms are blocked on Weibo today
June 3, 2013
Global Post | 7 things you can't talk about in China
By Benjamin Carlson, June 3, 2013