The Null Device
In China, where the government asserts total control over public discourse, certain topics are forbidden, among them is the Tienanmen Square massacre of pro-democracy protesters on 4 June 1989. The government has done its best to expunge the event from the national memory, something which has become increasingly challenging as the population has embraced (a filtered version of) the internet. So the national firewall is programmed to expunge certain keywords, and armies of censors scour message boards looking for offending content. Every year, as the anniversary approaches, the censorship is ramped up to levels bordering on the absurd:
And so all day today users in China got bizarre replies from their search engines. “According to the relevant laws and policies, the results of your search ‘89’ cannot be displayed,” was the head-shaker I just read on my own screen. Typing “Tiananmen Square” – in English or Chinese – gets the same answer on the popular Sina Weibo site, which boasts over 300 million users. Pity the poor tourist just trying to find the plaza in the middle of the Chinese capital.
(The sina.com and baidu.com search engines allows don’t bar the terms, but only return politically approved material, such as a China Daily article headlined “Tiananmen Square massacre a myth.") Chinese Internet users are a wily bunch. Last year, they briefly evaded censors by referring to the date of the crackdown as “May 35th” rather than June 4th, a move that forced the conversation-killers to ban a non-existent date this year.The censors' crusade against remembrance has extended to temporarily banning websites which allow visitors to light a virtual candle for the deceased, on the off-chance that one may be doing so as part of a forbidden protest. Other than prominently highlighting the forbidden date, a date on which nothing is allowed to have happened, this has also claimed collateral damage, such as anyone else anyone may innocently wish to memorialise close to such a sensitive date:
All weekend long, tributes piled up on the Weibo page of Lin Jun, the 33-year-old from Hubei province who was brutally murdered and dismembered in Montreal late last month. By Sunday night, there were more than 20,000 comments on Mr. Lin’s page. Many users, at a loss for words, had simply posted the candle emoticon in simple tribute. But today, the censors’ new rules had marred even something so moving and apolitical as the public outpouring for Mr. Lin (while letting the anti-gay slurs posted by a hateful minority remain on his site). Where once there had been rows of flickering orange candles on Mr. Lin’s Weibo page, there now read the somewhat less moving “[candle][candle][candle][candle][candle].”The Chinese government's censorship system also ended up blocking the Shanghai stock exchange after a drop in the Shanghai Composite Index (64.89) matched the forbidden date.
Meanwhile, Chinese social-media site Sina Weibo is trialling a new social credit rating system:
Sina Weibo users each will now receive 80 points to begin with, and this can be boosted to a full 100 points by those who provide their official government-issued identification numbers (like Social Security numbers in the U.S.) and link to a cellphone account. Spreading falsehoods will lead to deductions in points, among other penalties. Spreading an untruth to 100 other users will result in a deduction of two points. Spreading it to 100-1,000 other users will result in a deduction of five points, as well as a week's suspension of the account. Spreading it to more than 1,000 other users will result in a deduction of 10 points, as well as a 15-day suspension of the account. Once the point total falls below 60, the user is flagged as "low-credit." A loss of all points will result in an account's closure.The definition of “falsehood” includes “nonconforming” or false images, claiming that problems which have officially been resolved are ongoing or giving “incomplete or hidden information”.