Global Economics

Google Blocked as China Beefs Up Security on Tiananmen's 25th Anniversary


Pro-democracy demonstrators sat before soldiers guarding Communist Party headquarters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 1, 1989

Photograph by Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket via Getty Images

Pro-democracy demonstrators sat before soldiers guarding Communist Party headquarters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 1, 1989

(Corrects characterization of security presence in Beijing in the fifth paragraph.)

Even when there are no sensitive anniversaries in the offing, using Google (GOOG) in China is difficult. Often it’s so agonizingly slow that one must first launch a virtual private network before utilizing Gmail, search, and Google Translate.

In recent days, slow has turned into inaccessible as the government girds for the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. “In an effort to prevent the dissemination of information related to this event, the Chinese censorship authorities have severely blocked most Google services in China, including search and Gmail,” wrote Greatfire.org, a site that monitors the Chinese net, in an e-mail to Bloomberg News. “Our gut feeling is this disruption may be permanent.”

Google confirmed that it was not responsible for the shutdown of services in China; the company has “checked extensively and there are no technical problems on our side,” Google said in an e-mail statement.

Outside the virtual world, Chinese authorities are engaged in a much more frightening crackdown. Ahead of the anniversary of the June days when the government used tanks and guns against protesters, more than 50 people that include lawyers, intellectuals, journalists, and rights activists have been arrested, detained, or are ”missing and believed to be detained,” according to Amnesty International.

Beijing is also experiencing an unprecedented police and paramilitary security presence (much of it directed at combating possible terrorism but much aimed at weiwen, or “maintaining social stability”). Most recent mornings, as I walk to an underground parking garage to get my car, scores of diplomatic compound security guards are bellowing chants and doing martial arts attack routines. On the road, an open jeep carries helmeted armed police with automatic rifles, one of the patrols newly seen on the city’s streets. Helicopters buzz regularly over Beijing, scouring the streets for any signs of trouble; the only other time helicopters have flown over Beijing in the nearly two decades I’ve been here was during the few weeks of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Security is vastly heightened in subway stations, with lines of patient commuters snaking above ground as they await their turn to pass through metal detectors and open bags for examination by subway employees. Police, some with bomb-sniffing German Shepherds, stand at the ready in stations. Checkpoints have been set up to inspect vehicles entering and leaving the city, and 2,000 safety inspectors have been assigned to the city’s buses, with 4,000 of the vehicles to be equipped with monitoring cameras.

Meanwhile, 100,000 Beijing residents have been mobilized to collect “safety and stability” information. As the China Daily put it, they are “parking lot workers, newspaper stands workers, representatives of residential buildings and other grassroots residents.” Monetary awards for valuable tips are being offered. “Those who provide information on suspicious people, events, items and cars, can be awarded at least 40,000 yuan ($6,404) if the information proves to be helpful in preventing and solving major crimes,” the paper reported on May 30.

Meanwhile, professors, writers, lawyers, and journalists who care about such things worry that even talking too much in one’s home about Tiananmen can get a person in trouble. After a group of 15 people that included academics, writers, activists, and the prominent human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang met in a private apartment to discuss Tiananmen in early May, a photograph was posted online. Five of the attendees, including Pu, have since been criminally detained on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.”

“Twenty-five years on, Chinese citizens continue to be persecuted for trying to remember the events of 1989 when hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters were killed or injured on the night of 3 and 4 June after the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on unarmed civilians,” says a blog by Amnesty International’s China team.

Guo Jian, a 52-year-old, China-born, Australian artist who once served in the Chinese army and protested in Tiananmen Square in 1989, was detained Sunday night after giving an interview to the Financial Times. “As an Australian citizen, we’ll do what we can to release him if the case is he’s been detained,” said Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop in an interview today with Sky News.

Some foreign reporters and their local staff have been called in by the Chinese public security bureau and shown videotaped lectures “dissuading them from reporting on the anniversary,” with some “warned of serious consequences should they disobey the authorities,” the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said in an e-mailed statement on June 2.

Xin Jiang, a Chinese news assistant for Japanese newspaper Nikkei, is believed to have been detained by police and held incommunicado for several weeks on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” a catchall charge used with increasing frequency against those who run afoul of the government on issues of free speech and human rights.

“Reports that [Xin's] detention was connected with an interview she had conducted with human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, himself now under arrest, raise the disturbing possibility that she is being punished for the routine discharge of her professional duty on behalf of her employer,” said the Foreign Correspondents Club of China in a May 30 e-mail statement.

Dexter_roberts
Roberts is Bloomberg Businessweek's Asia News Editor and China bureau chief. Follow him on Twitter @dtiffroberts.

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