China’s Douban Platform Bans Popular Accounts as Censorship Is Raised for Tiananmen Square Anniversary

China is notorious for dialing up its internet censorship as the June 4 anniversary of the deadly Tiananmen Square crackdown approaches.

Each year, its censors go into high alert to wipe out any direct, indirect or disguised references to the 1989 incident, during which the People’s Liberation Army fired upon peaceful democracy protestors in the heart of Beijing.

But for the first time this year, a top social media platform took the unusual step of preemptively silencing popular accounts simply for being influential, even though they hadn’t posting anything politically sensitive.

On Wednesday morning, many Douban users received an unexpected message from the platform stating that their ability to post had been temporarily suspended in the lead-up to and aftermath of the anniversary date.

“This account has been muted for four days according to community guidelines principles starting from June 2, 2021,” the message said, without further explanation, according to numerous screenshots and personal testimonies to Variety.

One prominent Douban user with nearly 10,000 followers who writes most actively about cinema said the move was “totally unexpected.”

“The massive June 2 ban was a first for the platform,” he said, declining to give his real name due to the subject’s political sensitivity. “Although at the beginning of June each year, many Chinese forums and gaming message boards are always conveniently under ‘site maintenance’ or otherwise prevent users from posting, this is the first time ever that a social media platform like Douban took the step to actively ban posting by certain users.”

Some ever-clever Douban users and film fans managed nevertheless to mark the taboo anniversary by wishing the Chinese director Bi Gan (“Kaili Blues”) a happy birthday. He was born on June 4, 1989.

Chinese social media platforms are responsible for conducting their own censorship, and can face severe fines or other punishments for failing to do so sufficiently and by letting sensitive posts slip through the cracks.

Douban has long been long prized by users for its vibrant community and discussion of arts and culture via forums, blogs, ratings and reviews. But now it is tilting towards becoming even more cautious about content than rival sites.

Many Douban users soundly criticized the move.

Some pointed out that the account ban wasn’t even a very effective means of censorship, since it actually highlighted rather than obscured the anniversary by generating vocal user backlash and spurring those who may not have been aware of the date to figure out just why they had been banned.

“People weren’t even necessarily going to write anything ‘illegal’ anyway, but this censorship measure basically reveals what they intend to hide. Every act of erasure actually makes the thing they’re trying to erase even more visible,” one wrote.

In a quickly censored comment, another lamented: “The murderer always remembers the date of the crime even more clearly than the family of the victims themselves.”

Tank Man Vs. “World of Tanks”

Douban is not alone in taking extra precautions this year, which marks another politically sensitive anniversary — the 100th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Communist Party of China.

Numerous other apps, sites and games have announced that they have disabled chats, forums and bullet comment functions for the first week of June, frequently blaming “site maintenance” or nebulous “special circumstances.”

Platforms like the ubiquitous Wechat and video games have also temporarily disabled functions allowing users to change their profile pictures or personal avatars and user names, for fear they could be manipulated to reference the unspoken June 4 events.

Douyu, one of the country’s most popular live-streaming platforms, was practically unrecognizable Friday. Censors had stripped it entirely of the bullet comments that typically swarm its videos so extensively that they often obscure the content beneath.

Notably, the popular massively multiplayer online game “World of Tanks” announced Monday on its official Weibo account that it would apparently be shutting off its in-game chat functions until June 8 due to “maintenance… to bring you a better experience.” The game was developed by Wargaming, a Belarusian firm headquartered in Cyprus with a branch in Chicago.

Tanks were famously deployed against the Tiananmen Square demonstrators, captured in one of photojournalism’s most iconic images, the “Tank Man” photo, in which a lone protestor stands blocking a procession of them.

Vigils

For the past three decades, Hong Kong has held an enormous candlelight vigil in the city center to mark the anniversary of Tiananmen, but that longstanding tradition is now changing.

Last year, large crowds attended despite a ban on the event amidst the pandemic and Beijing’s tightening political grip over the semi-autonomous territory. This year, it has once again been banned in the name of the coronavirus, even though Hong Kong has maintained an average of less than 20 new cases a week since March, and marked zero untraceable cases of local transmission in over a month.

Local security authorities have said that attending or publicizing a vigil could be sentenced to up to five years in prison as actions violating COVID-19 restrictions as well as draconian national security law.

Two dozen prominent pro-democracy figures participants in last year’s vigil are all currently in jail on charges of organizing and unauthorized assembly.

Macau has also typically held a formal memorial, but this year banned it by stating that such an event would violate local criminal laws.

Meanwhile, even small-scale events related to Tiananmen are becoming increasingly difficult in Hong Kong. The territory’s censors last week issued warnings to a hospital workers’ union with plans to screen two films related to the crackdown — 1992 documentary “I Have Graduated” and the 2001 feature “Conjugation” — stating that doing so without prior approval could result in fines and other consequences.

At the end of may, Hong Kong police also used the National Security Law to attempt to take down a pro-democracy website that is hosted outside the territory and operated by people based abroad. The Israel-based ISP initially complied, but then backtracked.

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