How Tiananmen Square sparked an alternative version of the Internet


In 1987, the first email was sent from China, marking the country’s first use of the Internet. Two years after, students mobilised in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to protest for democracy. Even then, the government knew a Western style of Internet would threaten their control.

It has been thirty years since the horrors of the Tiananmen Square massacre, an event that helped convince the ruling Communist Party that an open and free Internet would not work in China.

If the protesting students were connected, it would have given activists an advantage. The student-led pro-democracy movement may not have been thwarted just the government.

After Tiananmen Square, the Communist Party raced to put in the first blocks of what is now referred to as China’s firewall, says James Griffiths, author of The Great Firewall of China.

“Tiananmen woke the government up to the potential of the internet to be used in all social movements,” Griffiths said.

The Internet was in its infancy in the late 1980s. The first email was sent in China two years before the Tiananmen Square massacre, but the government was already pushing for it to be controlled.

“In the beginning, censorship was rudimentary. But it has improved to become a domestic technology sphere,” Griffiths added.

While the ‘open and free’ style Western version of the Internet has grown into a large connected environment that has joined people across the world, China has successfully created its own closed off version of the Internet, an antonym to West’s.

Large internet organisations like Facebook, WhatsApp and Google are blocked or ignored in favour of local alternatives WeChat, Weibo and Baidu.

According to Griffiths, the Chinese government uses these platforms as a means of surveillance and censorship, which is why the country has been so successful at controlling the Internet.

“Users are being hyper-surveilled by the government on the platforms,” Griffiths said.

May 35th on Weibo and WeChat

With under a week to the anniversary of the democracy protests at Tiananmen Square, China’s robot Internet censors will be working overtime.

June 4 will mark thirty years since troops fired on civilians and students, ending the demonstrations. But even the date is censored on China’s internet.

Those wishing to discuss the event on China’s social media platforms will instead speak in code and use the date May 35th.

China has developed its old alternative internet to the West - and its influence is expanding.
China has developed its old alternative internet to the West - and its influence is expanding.

Vicky Xiuzhong Xu is a reporter for the New York Times, based in Australia. After growing up with China’s alternative Internet, she says ‘dancing around censorship’ is common.

“There is key word censoring, so if you mention Tiananmen or June 4, you are going to get censored,” Xiuzhong Xu said.

“I’ve seen posts on WeChat be deleted overnight, or survive and go viral, only to be deleted later.

“So if you want to have a ‘sensitive conversation,’ you try to get around it.”

Labor is taking action over 'fake news' posts on WeChat.
WeChat is a popular chat program in China.

The mandarin words for rice-bunny phonetically sound like #MeToo. When discussions around the #MeToo movement became censored, people started using the emoji of a bunny instead.

“That’s how you dance around censorship,” she said.

Now Xiuzhong Xu says the algorithms and machine learning systems are becoming so intuitive, they even detect coded language used by those discussing ‘sensitive’ topics.

China’s Internet in Australia

Information that may encourage Chinese people to question their government is censored within the country. For example, those growing up in China aren’t taught about Tiananmen Square and Xinjiang re-education camps.

In her reporting, Xiuzhong Xu has seen Chinese students in Australia ‘fact-check’ historical events on Baidu - China’s version of Google.

At an event about Xinjiang’s reeducation camps - internment camps operated by the Chinese government - students used the Chinese search engine to seek information.

“Of course they did not find anything,” she said.

“They did not leave the Chinese Internet system, even after leaving China.”

With 1.2 million people in Australia who identify as having Chinese ancestry, Weibo and WeChat are commonly used in the country. So much so, Labor and Liberal parties advertised on the Chinese social media platforms during the federal election.

Although the platforms are used by the Chinese government for censorship and surveillance, they are a growing presence in Australia’s political landscape.

The Labor Party held live question and answer sessions with users and ran campaign videos in Chinese languages.

“There are over a dozen Australian politicians who have used platforms like WeChat to reach voters,” Xiuzhong Xu added.

In the fallout of the election earlier this month, there has been concern the spread of misinformation on these platforms during the last election, with Labor challenging the Liberal Party’s likely victory in Chisholm after allegations of dirty tactics on the platform.

“Politically advertising is not monitored on WeChat like it is on Facebook,” Vicky Xiuzhong Xu said.

Any legal challenge would come after vote counting in Chisholm has finished.