The Chinese government’s new censorship target: itself

China accidentally reminded people that this happened.
China accidentally reminded people that this happened.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

First, 11 Chinese students studying abroad in Australia, the US, and the UK wrote an open letter to the people of China, enumerating the horrors of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre—which has its 26th anniversary next month—and calling upon the Communist Party to put those responsible on trial.

Then, an official Chinese-government tabloid, the Global Times, published an editorial demonizing that letter. With typical propagandist hyperbole, the editorial—headlined “Hostile forces target younger generation”—said that the students had been “brainwashed in foreign countries” and were trying to “tear society apart.” It also claimed, unconvincingly, that “Chinese society has reached a consensus on not debating the 1989 incident.”

The result? More people learned about the letter, and now censors are trying to purge the editorial from the internet. That is to say, the Chinese government is censoring itself.

The original letter from the students was released at great risk to the authors’ political futures in China.

“We are writing you this open letter, fellow college students inside China, to share the truth with you and to expose crimes that have been perpetrated up to this day in connection with the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989,” the students write. (The letter has been translated into English by China Change; the original Chinese version is available on Google Docs.)

As with most government-backed statements, the Global Times’ hysterical response was widely reposted across the internet by state-run media. That, no doubt, gave the letter more attention than it would have gotten on its own. To make matters worse for the government censors, the letter was posted as a Google Form, which allowed readers to add their names to the list of signatories, vastly increasing the letter’s reach.

Now the Chinese government seems to have gotten worried that, given enough attention, the letter could turn into a widely broadcast rallying call. The latest directive from China’s censorship agency insists on the deletion of the editorial published in the Global Times. (That’s via China Digital Times, a news site affiliated with the University of California Berkeley, which releases leaked directives from the Chinese Communist Party’s censorship agencies under the Orwellian headline “Ministry of Truth.”)

The Chinese version of the editorial has indeed been taken down, but the English remains. As do, for now, screenshots for posterity.

Meanwhile, the students seem pleased with the unanticipated attention to the issue they raised about the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Gu Yi, the main author, told the Guardian, “the Global Times attacking our letter was the best advertisement.”