June 5, 2017 10:28 pm JST

Weibo's 'systems upgrade' on Tiananmen date angers netizens

Tightened internet censorship led to unintended consequences for businesses

JENNIFER LO, Nikkei staff writer

Hong Kong's annual candlelight vigil commemorating the victims of Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing 28 years ago attracted 110,000 people on Sunday. (Photo by Kenji Kawase)

HONG KONG -- Early June is known to be a busy time for China's online police. This year, the internet controls were tightened on the 28th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown on June 4.

Overseas users of Sina Weibo, China's largest microblogging site, were unable to post pictures and videos from Saturday through Monday morning. Users on the mainland were also blocked from editing their profiles and using visuals to respond to others' comments.

Weibo said the disruption was due to a "systems upgrade," but the blackout was widely understood as a ban on public discussion of Beijing's use of military force to brutally quell pro-democracy protestors in 1989. China's internet-savvy population was quick to vent its frustration.

"It probably has to do with what happened 28 years ago. This is stupid," wrote a Weibo user under a nickname who worded his message vaguely to avoid censorship. "If it wasn't due to the [blackout], I wouldn't have remembered what date it was," wrote another.

Others lamented the fact they were unable to upload their vacation photos on social media. "I simply wanted to show pictures of my long legs and pretty face. This annoyed me," wrote a Weibo user traveling in Germany.

There were also some unintended consequences for online businesses and popular bloggers. Some daigou agents who claimed to be professional overseas shoppers for mainland buyers of cosmetics and handbags were able to upload their photos in spite of the blackout. They were then slammed for being "dishonest," as it appeared they were based in China, not overseas as claimed.

With 580,000 fans on Weibo, a Chinese blogger who writes about northern Europe was also challenged by netizens after she managed to post new photos during the period. "You list your address as Sweden, and this can't be true," said a critic. "I've never stated openly this was true," the blogger said in defense.

The Tiananmen crackdown remains a taboo subject on mainland China. Search terms deemed sensitive to the authorities such as "Tiananmen massacre" and "June Fourth" are typically censored on Chinese social media sites. In March, four Chinese activists faced a 15-year sentence for selling liquor with labels that echoed the date of June 4, 1989.

Still, Hong Kong is the only place on Chinese soil where the incident is commemorated on a large scale. A candlelight vigil was held in the former British colony on Sunday, prompting Chinese censors to try to stop the spread of visuals of the annual event attended by some 110,000, according to the organizer.

The blackout also sparked some discussion in Taiwan, which is also facing political pressure from China. A netizen on Taiwan's popular online forum PTT described the incident as an "online massacre." Another said mockingly: "It's a country with just 364 days."

William Nee, a China researcher at Amnesty International Hong Kong, raised concerns about growing censorship in China. "The ruling Communist Party distorts history for political purposes and goes to extraordinary lengths to stifle the freedom of expression needed to honestly debate and scrutinize past events," he wrote on Sunday.

"Refusing to objectively acknowledge history only prolongs the suffering of the survivors and hinders reparation."

Nikkei Asian Review staff writer Kazumi Sakurada in Hong Kong contributed to this story.

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