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Tiananmen Square 30 Years On: Words Still Have Power

Back then, students fought oppression via the fax. They depended on free media in Hong Kong to tell the world

Words have power. Whoever controls the narrative controls public perception. The Chinese government knows this, which is why the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has historically censored the material Chinese citizens read, particularly about topics that might cause China or its government to be seen in a poor light. For example, much of mainland China was unaware of the events of Tiananmen Square (1989), which were described as “riots” by the curated Chinese media. Even today, many people don’t know the significant facts of the event.

Following the pattern, the Chinese government has described the Hong Kong protests as violent riots by extremists. And, as with mainland China’s reports on Tiananmen Square, the abuses by police in Hong Kong have been scrubbed from the Chinese internet, while violence by protesters has been highlighted.

Page, Page Against the Machine!

Professor King-wa Fu recalls his efforts as a college student at the University of Hong Kong to break through the CCP’s sanitization of Tiananmen Square thirty years ago. In 1989, many people had been protesting in Beijing after the death of Hu Yaobang, a government reformer. As news spread to the then-British colony of Hong Kong, some 1,250 miles (2,000 km) away, Hong Kong’s newspapers and media portrayed the events more or less accurately when mainland China’s media wasn’t allowed to report on the protests:

At the time, most Chinese outside of Beijing didn’t know much about what was going on. The government censored information about the uprising, preventing missives from being published in newspapers or broadcast on the news. Now, 30 years after the events at Tiananmen Square, most people in China still know little about this history—despite the ubiquitousness of the internet in China. The reason? China’s infamous internet censorship system…”

King-wa Fu, “Students in Hong Kong used fax machines to fight Chinese censorship in Tiananmen Square” at Quartz October 29, 2019

King-wa and his friends “decided to break the news blockade” by faxing a daily news digest of Beijing protest events. They sought help from over 500 Hong Kong companies to crowd found their campaign to send the digest to every fax number in the Yellow Pages. Some feedback was thankful; other responses were angry and accusatory.

Today, King-wa is a professor at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong where he researches media use, including media and politics. He points out that the Chinese government’s censorship has only become worse:

Sadly, even 30 years after our efforts, the Chinese government has only tightened its grip on the information its citizens can access. Censorship has extended from radio, newspapers, and television to the internet, which reaches almost 60% of the country’s population. Most Chinese can only access restricted information, but they don’t even know what information they are not able to obtain.

King-wa Fu, “Students in Hong Kong used fax machines to fight Chinese censorship in Tiananmen Square” at Quartz October 29, 2019

For example, a Google search of “Tiananmen Square” returns a variety of news from both Western sources and Chinese government sources. Type the same search into Baidu and King-wu says, you only get results from official Chinese government media that paint the protests as riots and lauds the government’s actions.

Many people in mainland China do not necessarily want non-curated news. They are aware that they get Beijing’s version of the news and see it as no problem because they could use a VPN if they really want to read other news. But many of them don’t want to hear from other sources. According to Inkstone, a publication of the South China Morning Post (a Hong Kong paper owned by Alibaba, Inc.), young Chinese see the economy as more important than politics. They value political stability over rights because stability helps the economy:

“Those who are brainwashed are them [Hong Kong protesters]. They think they need democracy, but what they really need is to have a better life,” said Shan, who became emotional when recalling a recent spat with a church friend over Hong Kong.

Meng Jing, “Why Chinese Students in the US Aren’t Fans of Hong Kong Protesters” at Inkstone

Because of this, they interpret the Hong Kong protests in economic terms as a reaction by the younger Hongkongers who have low-paying jobs and can’t afford Hong Kong’s expensive housing. Notably, these young critics were born after 1997 when Hong Kong was handed back to China from Britain. They are not comparing Hong Kong as a British-led colony with Hong Kong today. They see Hong Kong as “no different from other major Chinese cities except that its residents can use Instagram without a VPN.”

Many of the young Chinese students who come to the United States to study practice self-censoring. Inkstone reports that if they are sympathetic to Hong Kong, they don’t say so out of fear that they will get into trouble by the government when they return to China. In addition, Chinese students who disagree with the protests also remain silent out of fear that their visas to study abroad will be denied.

created by dji camera

Two conflicting stories about the protests

One plank in the CCP’s propaganda is to claim that the Hong Kong protests are being funded by the U.S. This claim shows smart timing on the CCP’s part because there is currently a bill going through the U.S. Congress that would provide protection to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters. If passed, it would play into that narrative. It also plays into a larger narrative that the Chinese government has promoted for many years: the Communist party saved China from Western encroachment and imperialism.

In August, in an effort to curb China’s tactics, Twitter and Facebook removed hundreds of troll accounts created to spread propaganda demonizing the Hong Kong protesters. But according to an article in Bloomberg, those accounts were quickly replaced.

But keeping disinformation off platforms is proving no small task. Twitter said in August it had suspended 936 accounts linked to a China-backed operation, as well as a network of 200,000 other accounts. Facebook and YouTube announced similar moves the same month.

Still, researchers from Astroscreen, as well as Nisos Inc., FireEye Inc. and Graphika Inc., have found evidence suggesting that digital activity targeting the Hong Kong protests continued after the removals.

Shelly Banjo and Alyza Sebenius, “Trolls Renew Social Media Attacks on Hong Kong’s Protesters” at Bloomberg

Many of these new accounts, created between August and October, have few followers, a generic profile picture, and tweet mainly about the Hong Kong protests with generic hashtags, such as #HongKong. As Donara Barojan from Astroscreen notes, the point is to create a false consensus.

The risks of seeing people as “cockroaches”

Not only do words in the media or on the internet have power, but so do the words both parties are using IRL (in real life). A Washington Post article warns that animosity between protesters and the police has reached a point where both are calling each other dehumanizing names like “cockroach” or “dog.” The police use of the term “cockroaches” has historical baggage. As the Washington Post notes , it was used by the Nazis against the Jews and by Hutus against Tutsis in the Rwandan genocide.

To make matters worse, early November has been particularly violent. The police used tear gas against peaceful protestors and a pro-Beijing politician was stabbed by an activist.

As Professor William Donohue, who studied the function of this type of rapidly disseminated language in the Rwandan genocide, has pointed out

“If the state actor comes from a democratically elected system, you typically don’t get this kind of language [as] there is the assumption that the government is accountable to the people.

But when you have a government that is not elected, when it rules by other means, they feel less restricted, they are not accountable to anybody.”

Shibani Mahtani, Timothy McLaughlin, “‘Dogs’ vs. ‘cockroaches’: On Hong Kong streets, language of genocide rears its head” at MSN News

Words have power. The narrative is told through the words that describe the characters. Is the story about unruly rioters infesting city streets or is it about young protesters fearing the loss of their rights? Are the protesters described as pro-democracy or anti-government? Are the police trying to restore order or are they following orders? It depends on whose story you get to hear.

Here are some of Heather Zeiger s recent reports on the high tech battle for freedom in Hong Kong:

Hi-tech Freedom Game in Hong Kong: Technology can oppress a people group or it can give them a voice
Can China really silence Hong Kong?

The unadvertised cost of doing business with China: It’s a big market, with one Big Player, and some strange rules. In China, censorship includes democracy, human rights, sex, George Orwell’s 1984, and Winnie-the-Pooh (because the stuffed literary bear has been compared by some Chinese bloggers to their President). Such censorship, say many, minimizes the value of the internet.

China: What You Didn’t Say Could Be Used Against You An AI voiceprint could be used to generate words never said.

In China, high-tech racial profiling is social policy. For an ethnic minority, a physical checkup includes blood samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and voice recordings. The Chinese government seeks a database of everyone in the country, not only to track individuals but to determine the ethnicity of those who run up against the law.


The internet doesn’t free anyone by itself. China is testing 100% surveillance on the Uyghurs, a strategically critical minority.

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

Tiananmen Square 30 Years On: Words Still Have Power