This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
China’s internet censors have deleted a photo of two embracing runners displaying the taboo combination of “6” and “4,” an inadvertent reference to the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre that authorities have tried to cover up.
Photos of sprinters Lin Yuwei and Wu Yanni hugging each other just after Lin’s Oct. 1 victory in the 100 meters hurdles at the Asian Games in Hangzhou had been removed from several official news websites including that of state broadcaster CCTV by Tuesday evening.
While the two women are patriotically draped in Chinese flags, the numbers on their shorts reads “6’’ and “4,” a common discreet way of referring to the Beijing’s Tiananmen massacre, in which dozens of Chinese students calling for greater democratic freedoms were killed in the square by People’s Liberation Army troops.
Any public mention of the event or the date is censored by the Great Firewall.
In June, censors deleted a video of a woman dancing in which she makes hand gestures corresponding to the numbers 6 and 4. The woman was reportedly placed under close surveillance by police in her home city of Guangzhou.
Public commemoration of the massacre is banned in mainland China, while an annual candlelight vigil that used to mark the anniversary in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park has fallen silent after more than three decades, its leaders in prison under a draconian national security law used to crack down on public dissent.
‘They’re afraid of everything’
The Twitter account “Mr Li is not your teacher” posted before and after screenshots of CCTV’s website, one showing the political gaffe, and the other a blank space.
“This photo has been deleted behind the Great Firewall,” the account said.
“They’re afraid of everything,” commented one user, while another said, “Amazing numbers!”
Canada-based democracy activist Sheng Xue reposted the item, with the comment: “People will always think of the June 4 massacre when they see the two of them … June 4 is a curse on the tyranny of the Chinese Communist Party.”
Taiwan-based exiled dissident Gong Yujian said some people inside China didn’t know why the photo had disappeared from view, and had speculated that the numbers had some kind of pornographic meaning.
“They didn’t think it would be about June 4, and it prompted a bit of discussion inside the Great Firewall,” Gong said, adding that the government has been so successful at removing references to the 1989 massacre from the Chinese internet that many young people don’t know anything about it.
“While they can’t stop people from getting to the bottom of it, they can simply block it from the whole of the [Chinese] internet, so only people overseas can see it,” he said.
“All memory of what happened on June 4, 1989, has been wiped away from the Chinese people,” Gong said. “Unless they have personal experience of it, or they circumvent the Great Firewall, they won’t know anything about this chapter in their own history.”
Wu Chien-chung, associate professor of general studies at the Taipei University of Marine Science and Technology, said Chinese officials are “terrified” by those two numbers.
“This shows they have no self-confidence at all … maybe in future they won’t let four-year-olds and six-year-olds play together,” he quipped.
He said many people had commented on Chinese social media sites that censoring the numbers will only make people more curious and interested in that part of their history.
Lin crossed the finish line first in a personal best of 12.74 seconds, while Wu finished second in 12.77 seconds, but was disqualified by a panel of judges for jumping the gun, the nationalistic Global Times newspaper reported, without mentioning the numbers gaffe.
Wu issued a public apology on Monday for her disqualification.
“I am very sorry that my result was disqualified due to a false start, disappointing everyone’s expectations,” Wu said via her official Weibo account. “I deeply apologize to all my friends who have supported me and to the competitors in tonight’s race.”
“What sports has taught me is to get up where I fall, accept failure, face failure, and start over,” she said.
The paper quoted one online comment as saying, “Mistakes in sports competitions can be understood, but what’s more important is the intention to bring glory to the country.”