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Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and many — including one of China’s most famous dissidents, the artist Ai Weiwei — are commemorating the occasion with personal protests.
The massacre took place on June 4, 1989, when 200,000 Chinese troops, acting under martial law, were sent to squash seven-week-long student-led popular demonstrations in central Beijing. The result was the death of hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters. The event has been immortalized around the world through the stark image of “tank man,” which has come to represent individuals standing up to the military might of autocratic regimes. Ai Weiwei penned an op-ed for Bloomberg today on the occasion of the anniversary. In it he writes about China’s “forgetting” of history and the recent removal of his works from two exhibitions in China, including one in which “local officials had [his] name erased from the exhibition’s wall text and barred the artworks from being displayed.”
In the second incident, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing consciously omitted Ai’s name from a press release to avoid making waves. Ai told UCCA director Philip Tinari during a meeting that he was ruining himself with “this Chineseness.”
The topic of Tiananmen is one of China’s most charged taboos; earlier this year lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was arrested for commemorating the event, while Singaporean artist Lee Wen was found beaten in a restroom at an Art Basel Hong Kong–affiliated symposium after mentioning Chen Guang, a Tiananmen Square soldier who later became an artist. The topic is regularly scrubbed from Chinese social media, so those who commemorate it are forced to turn to more covert and coded means (and memes) to communicate their message. Social media, as Hyperallergic contributor An Xiao wrote back in 2011, is used as a form of “street art” by users who share photos and memes to evade censors.
Today, one Instagram user, @crazdiamond, held up playing cards in Tiananmen Square with the date of the massacre and a reference to the common military weapon the AK-47 gun. Ai Weiwei posted a photo of himself wearing a T-shirt with the word “democracy” clearly emblazoned on it. Others posted images on Instagram under identifiable hashtags including #0604 and #64; one image of rubber ducks replacing the tanks in the infamous “tank man” photo went viral on Weibo, before Chinese censors pulled it down. And American company LinkedIn was embroiled in allegations of censorship outside mainland China, with some Hong Kong users reportedly receiving notices that their Tiananmen-related posts on the site had been blocked, according to Quartz. (A LinkedIn spokesperson stated that no accounts outside of mainland China were affected, and the messages were sent in error.)
The BBC noted today in a report on the social media commemorations that Chinese authorities are stricter than ever:
One user, who did not wish to be identified, told the BBC that the candle emoticon was missing from the usual emoticons available on Sina Weibo, and the word “candle” was blocked. “I saw more content on 4 June last year – but there seems to be much less online this year,” he said.
You may also be interested to know that George Washington University’s National Security Archive has released declassified documents related to Tiananmen Square online.