Lest we remember: Tiananmen and the Chinese media

Chinese authorities have blocked access to Twitter, Flickr and Hotmail in the lead up to the 20th anniversary of the crackdown of the Tiananmen movement. Authorities have also banned Chinese social network site Fanfou and the new Microsoft search engine Bing, none of it official explanation. With the anniversary of the massacre in the square falling tomorrow, it was no wonder that a phlegmatic Fanfou announced on its site “hopefully service will be resumed June 6.”

Fanfou are correct: normal service will most likely resume at the end of the Tiananmen news cycle. The Chinese have been able to suppress knowledge of the event among its citizens for 20 years by selective and time-sensitive censorship and media management. Yet this successful censorship does little to hide the fact the massacre had drastic political consequences. The student uprising and the parallel fall of Soviet Communism led to the demise of Deng Xiaoping’s counter-revolutionary wing of the Communist Party and the victory of conservatives.The changes brought Shanghai powerbroker Jiang Zemin to office. Jiang did not have Deng’s showmanship but he was a fixer with ideas how to solve the government’s image problem. In a major 1990 speech, he told the media what was expected of them:

“From now on, our newspapers, periodicals, radio and television stations should never be allowed to provide grounds for bourgeois liberalisation. Truthfulness in news means precisely to uphold the party’s ideological line.”

According to Jiang there was no higher truth than serving the party. This maxim enabled every other lie in the book. The state-run media was a complicit partner in ensuring the party’s ideological line got out after Tiananmen. All state communication had to be vetted by the Central Propaganda Department with a checklist of subjects the media could not talk about. They must avoid stories about the military, ethnic conflict, religion (particularly Falun Gong), and the internal workings of the party and Government. Any mention of Tiananmen was verboten. What news did emerge about these topics was heavily coated in government rhetoric.

The late American journalist Harrison E. Salisbury was in Beijing at the time of the massacre. He said the media were complicit in the crackdown. “It is a propaganda blitz, and it is backed up by the biggest lie they could think of – Tiananmen did not happen,” he said. “No one, no one, was shot in the Square. They have even put down the memory hole their original announcement of the twenty-three students killed there. Now all they talk about are the brave PLA soldiers.”

Jailed Journalist Dai Qing said in 2002, “In the Chinese media, only the weather reports can be believed”. Dai Qing’s understandable cynicism would have only been strengthened by the Golden Shield. The shield is a sophisticated electronic surveillance system which allowed China to spy on the digital activities of its citizens. China developed this product with the eager help of western technology companies including Nortel using methods developed to counteract terrorism. China asked Google, Microsoft and Yahoo to filter their operations to suit local requirements. The companies all agreed. As Bill Gates said in 1994 as he rubbed shoulders with Jiang, “it’s a little strange to tie free trade to human rights issues, it is basically getting down to interference in internal affairs.” The multi-nationals interest in protecting their internal affairs married nicely with the sanctity of the party’s ideological line.

But if tying free trade to human rights is essential in Gates’s own country, why shouldn’t it be essential in the countries his company deals with? The US understands this with its blacklist of countries American companies cannot deal with. China’s treatment of democracy is as bad as many countries on the list, but it avoids sanction for an obvious reason: The Chinese economy has been raining yuans from Heaven for the last 20 years, and everyone wants a share. The large companies collude with China to pretend nothing happened in order to sustain the fiction the party is always right. And as long as they can control the agenda, they may always be right.

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