China Shuts Down Candle Emojis, June 4 References for Tiananmen Anniversary

This photo illustration taken on July 14, 2017 shows a woman holding her phone in Beijing after trying to post a candle emoji in memory of late Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo and getting a reply of "content is illegal". China's censors raced on July 14 to scrub social media networks …
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Users of Chinese social media platform Weibo discovered on Thursday that Beijing’s efforts to suppress commemorations of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre extend even to banning the emojis for candles and cakes, two symbols often associated with the event.

Reporters for confirmed on Thursday that posts containing the banned emojis are getting blanked out as soon as users create them on Weibo, China’s version of the banned Twitter microblogging platform.

Insider recalled comparable previous efforts by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) censors to suppress discussion of Tiananmen Square, and other dissident commemorations involving the candle and cake symbols:

This is not the first time that censors banned Weibo posts containing the candle emoji. In 2012, the Chinese censors blocked searches on June 3 and 4 altogether for the candle emojis and the Olympic torch.

The censorship extended to phrases in 2014. The BBC reported at the time that keywords and phrases like “Tiananmen” and “tank,” along with seemingly harmless phrases like “candlelight” and “today,” were all blocked. The candle emoji was also removed for a short time in 2017 when it was used in posts mourning Nobel Peace laureate and Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. 

Censors have in the past had to play catch-up with the emojis used by people on the Weibo platform to evade their gaze. In 2018, for instance, women used emojis for “rice” and “bunny” — pronounced “mi” and “tu” respectively — to make posts about the Me Too movement. 

The disappearance of the emojis was also noted by What’s On Weibo, a site that reports on social media developments in China, and by numerous Western reporters with Weibo accounts.

The candle icon is evocative of the memorial candles that have long been lit on June 4 to remember the victims of Tiananmen Square. Hong Kong’s Victoria Park is traditionally the scene of a massive annual candlelight vigil, but last year the authorities used the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext to shut it down, and this year they largely abandoned the pandemic excuse to permanently ban Tiananmen vigils and marches as a subversive threat to the CCP’s power that can be punished under last year’s “national security” law.

Enterprising Hong Kongers are still finding clever ways to remember Tiananmen Square in defiance of the crackdown, including writing the numbers “6” and “4” on light switches (so every time the light is turned on or off, it is a coded salute to June 4, 1989) and using their cell phones to simulate candles. Many have defied the government ban entirely and simply lit candles as they did in previous years.

The cake icon symbolizes birthdays and anniversaries and calls back to the way protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 handed out cake.


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