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Online Flash-Mob Protest

May 10, 2010

2010-05-04

Chinese netizens mark an historic anniversary with online outcries against censorship.

Photo: RFA

Screenshot of a Twitter page with the words “freedom of speech” highlighted.

HONG KONG—Chinese netizens staged flash-mob style protests against online censorship Tuesday, marking the 91st anniversary of the May 4th Movement, in which Chinese students demanded mondernization and reform.

The protest Tuesday began when Internet users sent out messages containing various combinations of the four Chinese characters “yan lun zi you,” meaning “freedom of speech.”

Meanwhile, many users set “freedom of speech” as the current status on their instant-messaging system accounts.

The May 4th Movement, in which Chinese students championed “democracy” and “science” as forces to modernize China, was sparked by demonstrations in Beijing on May 4, 1919 and has since been observed as an occasion to call for freedom and social change.

The protest was initiated by a blogger calling himself “beijing lao zhang (Old Zhang of Beijing),” who wrote on Twitter:

“On May 4, let us write the phrase ‘freedom of speech’ on all major sites in China, such as douban.com, tieba.baidu.com, tianya.cn, talk.163.com, xiaonei.net, and renren.com.”

Beijing-based blogger “kuai le wang zi (Happy Prince)” was among those who responded.

The protest “voiced the aspirations of the people; it is the result of having lived under oppression for so long," he said.

He said that many who had posted “freedom of speech” as their account-current status on qq.com, found that the word “freedom” had been deleted, leaving “speech” alone.

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Happy Prince then changed the words into “yan lun bu zi you (no freedom of speech),” which the system accepted.

QQ.com, managed by China-based Tencent Holdings Ltd.,  is one of the most popular free instant-messaging Web sites in China, with more than 856 million users.

Shanghai-based cyber expert Zeng Congyang said Tuesday that Tencent was following orders from Chinese authorities to filter its online content.

“It has to censor the Internet according to Chinese government directives. We all know that qq.com has been watching online content,” Zeng said.

On May 2, Chinese President Hu Jintao delivered a speech on the May 4th Movement when visiting a college in Beijing, where he urged China’s youth to commit themselves to the Chinese Communist Party while taking part in the drive to modernize China.

 “I don’t know how many youths would like to listen to that kind of propaganda today,” said Professor Ai Xiaoming of Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou.

"There is a big gap between the talks on official media and the posts in cyber space. Many meaningful words are transmitted by the Internet.”

In 1989, the May 4th Movement was commemorated by pro-democracy demonstrations in downtown Beijing to challenge Communist rule, precipitating the bloody crackdown at Tiananmen Square a month later.

On Tuesday, former Tiananmen leader Wang Dan marked the anniversary by writing on his Twitter blog: “Exactly 21 years ago today, we had a huge demonstration in which students from all colleges in Beijing participated, and in which more than 100,000 assembled.”

Original reporting for RFA’s Mandarin service by Xin Yu. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translations from the Mandarin by Ping Chen. Written in English by Richard Finney. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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