It's hot in Beijing
this time of year. An umbrella can serve as a convenient protection from the
sun. Back in the spring of 1989, hundreds of umbrellas filled Tiananmen
Square like makeshift shelters--until the army deployed tanks and
guns against the anti-government protesters holding them.
Today, security officials brandished umbrellas themselves,
fending off foreign journalists trying to visit the square on the 20th
anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown. Though China is renowned for its advanced
censorship technology, reporters from CNN, the BBC and Agence France-Presse
were all obstructed by men wielding the humble handheld rain protection device
in front of their cameras. Footage
from all three news outlets can be accessed on the Shanghai-ist blog.
One year ago today, The
Wall Street Journal blog "China
Journal" described an equally anachronistic phenomenon: Readers of National
Geographic magazine in China
found parts of the May issue hard to find--because they had been glued shut. "This
is the first we've heard about censors trading their black pens and scissors
for glue sticks," journalist Geoffrey Fowler wrote on Journal's blog.
It's hard to believe these clumsy techniques are really from
the minds behind the notorious Golden Shield project, an online censorship and
surveillance system that CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Bob Dietz has described
on this blog as "so expansive and sophisticated that countries such
as Vietnam, Zimbabwe, and Thailand have adopted its practices."
aggressive but unpredictable censorship apparatus deploys both cutting-edge and
primitive technologies is one of its strengths, domestically. For example,
while the government maintains a highly developed online filtering system to
follow Internet discussions remotely, they also hire Internet commentators to
blog the party line at 50 cents a post. (Discussion of the so-called "Fifty
Cent Party" can be read on the China
Digital Times Web site.) Individuals trying to make an extra buck can
plug the gaps left by a machine.
But using old-school censorship tactics on an international
audience only highlights China's
abysmal record of restricting the press. It does nothing to stop the world from
remembering the unarmed citizens who were killed or wounded in the streets of Beijing 20 years ago. An
estimated 150,000 people turned out to a commemorative vigil in Hong Kong today, according to international news reports.
It going to take more than rain gear to stem that tide.
The targets, as often with China's censorship strategy, are
not really foreigners. Rather, they are the many Chinese people who grew up not
knowing the Tiananmen demonstrations ever happened. Though it is the topic of
lively debate among dissidents and curious minds in China, it is kept entirely from the
news and limited in discussion forums online.
One fewer international
news report is one fewer threat to that status quo. Apparently, an extra
report or two about media censorship is not a concern.
The Chinese government views the global media attention around
the anniversary today as a storm: It is fierce, but temporary, and will soon
blow over without lasting damage. In the meantime, their umbrellas are up.