It’s that time of the year again, June 4. Twenty-four year ago, many of the college students in China who marched the Tiananmen Square to protest against government corruption were killed. Twenty-four years later, the incident is still a taboo topic in China.
After China’s social media boom, days around June 4 have become the country’s annual Internet “maintenance” period. This year, on June 3, Sina Weibo, China’s most dynamic microblog service, rolled out what has been its finest censorship move so far – to temporarily remove the candle icon, which looks like what’s in the red circle below, from its frequently-used icon list.
The candle icon is often used for mourning or when netizens feel like sending their blessings or prayers to those who are suffering. Netizens usually just “light” a candle or two when they comment to or share news stories of accidents, natural disasters or cases with human casualties.
The removal may have gone unnoticed if the fire at a poultry plant in the province of Jilin didn’t claim 119 lives (at least) on June 3. Usually when such a story breaks, one’d expect to see screens after screens of candles lit by netizens to mourn for the dead. Now all that is left is the word “candle” in Chinese. One netizen 卫庄 commented: “I want to light a candle for my fellow countrymen. But very unfortunately, the candle icon has disappeared from Weibo.”
“Explosions after gas leak at Jilin’s poultry plant have already killed 113 so far. [Candle][Candle][Candle].”
It’s unclear yet whether the order was from Sina’s self-censors or from someone above. The official explanation given by Sina is that they were “re-organizing” the icons. But image the frustration and anger Chinese netizens experienced when they found out that even the action of lighting a virtual candle is subject to censorship. Yes, it’s June 3 and over-censorship is expected. But something subtle and yet “in your face” like this still makes people unhappy.
One netizen on Twitter commented: “You can blow out a candle, but cannot crush out a fire. You can delete a Weibo post, but cannot erase history. You can force the young to forget today, but every year, there is a June 4….”
What’s even worse, after netizens found out about the removal of the candle icon and complained it, the word “candle” now is a blocked search word. When you enter the word “candle” in the search box in Weibo now, the following message shows up: “According to relevant laws and regulations, results for “candle” aren’t shown.”
An several thousand-year-old Chinese saying goes: “The magistrates are free to set fire, while the ordinary people are forbidden to even light lamps.” Sadly, the saying still holds true in year 2013.