Twitter Tweets Out in China

Hours before Twitter was booted unceremoniously off China's Internet late afternoon on June 2, the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre was briefly the top hot topic for Chinese users of the micro-blogging site.

Photo-sharing site Flickr, Microsoft's just-launched search engine Bing.com and Hotmail also went down with the micro-blogging site. A day later, Hotmail was back but the others so far remain unreachable. Mainland blogs are also being cautious.

Pundits are suggesting that it is the ultra-sensitive June 4 anniversary which caused the Great Fire Wall (or GFW in Chinese blogger speak) to get nasty. Video-sharing website Youtube was blocked back in March after Tibetan exiles posted a video purportedly showing Tibetans being beaten by Chinese soldiers.

"Whenever a particularly sensitive time arrives, web 2.0 applications like Twitter and Flickr can freely be used to post comments and pictures and it is very difficult for the government to control them," said one Beijing-based writer. "So it is easier for them to just block them all…I am not surprised at all. We were expecting this."

"Oh my God," was Chinese blogger-journalist Michael Anti's response. Anti, who used to work for The New York Times, hit the headlines in 2005 when Microsoft deleted his Windows Live Blog on Beijing's request.

"I'm sorry for my interview," he added, referring to comments he made to Beijing-based media blog Danwei.org last week that China would sooner or later block the service. "I'm so sorry."

A week earlier he had told Danwei: "Enjoy the last happy days of twittering before the fate of Youtube descends on it one day."

Of course it's not only activists who are affected by the clampdown, regular web users can't access these services either and they are furious.

"I paid about US$25 for a pro-account on Flickr," says one angry Beijing-based NGO worker. "And Flickr customer service cannot help my problem… I feel like I can't have any private property here. At any time, a web service can be grabbed from you."

Fanfou.com, the mainland indentikit copy of Twitter, is full of equally annoyed web users, with one Fanfou member with the nickname doskey cursing: "God damn GFW for blocking twitter." Link: http://fanfou.com/doskey. On the afternoon of June 3, the fanfou website said it was "down for maintenance" and would be up by June 6.

Most web services also have Chinese equivalents, some almost direct copies like fanfou.com, but the point is that these copies are hosted in China and so therefore easily monitored. Sensitive posts can easily be nipped in the bud. There is no such control on overseas web services like Twitter and Flickr.

But some activists are amused by the aggressive censorship.

The Beijing-based writer said that these bans are pointless because he just uses a proxy whenever something he wants to read is blocked. "The government expends such a huge amount of time and money blocking all these things and we can just use a proxy to see them," he laughed.

Such "stupid acts," have the opposite effect of the government's intention, he added. "Blocking these websites now just publicises June 4 even more. By blocking these websites people aren't suddenly going to forget that June 4 happened. On the contrary it's going to make a lot of people who weren't aware about it now know about it."

This is actually a good thing, he said.

"Short of blocking off the entire Internet the government can never stop people using it to find out things they don't want them to know," he added.

It is unbelievable to a western audience how such a momentous event that happened just 20 years ago can be struck from history and how any public discussion about it can be so effectively stifled.

Despite the flurry of western media reports that Chinese youth know nothing or little about the Tiananmen Square massacre, there are many, even young students in China, who are aware and discuss the tragedy. The fact that Tiananmen was one of the hot topics on Twitter hours before it went down is testament to this fact.

Also, when the secret memoirs of Zhao Ziyang, former general secretary of the Chinese Communist party, were posthumously published last month, web users on the mainland were busy downloading and uploading both Chinese and English versions of the book, called "Prisoner of the State" on websites here. Although they are swiftly removed, users keep on uploading. Zhao opposed the military crackdown on the students and spent the last 16 years of his life under house arrest for his stand.

Even some youth magazines are making some reference to the event.

So Rock! is a mainland youth music magazine available on newspaper stands in the capital that frequently mocks Chinese censorship. In their latest edition the back cover has a woman posing in a t-shirt which reads, albeit blurred: "So what, you only have one tank," in apparent reference to the iconic tanks that rolled onto the square in 1989.

Many expect and hope the block to be short-lived.

"I hope it is a temporary method for the government to deal with the June 4 anniversary," Anti told Asia Sentinel.

"The GWF will not block everything forever," said the writer. "After the sensitive time is over they will be back."

He said he thinks the bans will be lifted in a little over two weeks.

Let's hope so. I am keen to get back to my twitter feed of North Korea's state media. (http://twitter.com/kcna_dprk)