On 30th anniversary of Tiananmen protests, a reminder of the Internet’s once-lofty promise for liberty

June 4th, 2019 | by Alfred Siew
On 30th anniversary of Tiananmen protests, a reminder of the Internet’s once-lofty promise for liberty
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Today, on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, Bill Clinton’s words must ring so loudly in the ears of people who once saw the Internet as a force for good.

Back in 2000, in the heady days of the dot.com and Internet boom, the then-United States president had said that China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation would make the tools of communication widely available and bring about inevitable change.

“We know how much the Internet has changed America, and we are already an open society. Imagine how much it could change China,” he told an audience at Johns Hopkins University.

“Now there’s no question China has been trying to crack down on the Internet,” he noted, before uttering the famous words: “Good luck! That’s sort of like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.”

Well, China has managed to do precisely just that, with an unprecedented effort in censorship. It has erased sensitive topics online, from the June 4, 1989 massacre in Beijing, when troops opened fire on thousands of protesters seeking greater freedoms, to seemingly harmless caricatures of communist leaders, like a Winnie the Pooh meme on President Xi Jinping.

The result is collective amnesia when it comes to one of the darkest days in the country’s history. Ask a millennial in Beijing today about the Tiananmen “incident”, and you would likely draw a blank. Some will have heard of it but most won’t care.

I was in a closed-door discussion with Chinese journalists in Beijing about 10 years ago and one striking thing was how two generations of reporters saw the incident.

One reporter, in his 40s, was haunted by the event, which had become a bad nightmare from the past. A younger one, in her 20s, said it was more important to make money for a bigger apartment for her young family.

Neither is wrong in his or her world view. It’s just that the Tiananmen Square protest was no longer part of the narrative, as if it was erased like a malfunctioning program on a computer.

Perhaps what’s worse is that technology is no longer just for suppressing dissent. It is now powerful enough, with artificial intelligence (AI) and face recognition, to create and run a Big Brother-like surveillance state.

Yes, there’s the surveillance that identifies jaywalkers in large Chinese cities and assigns a negative social score to offenders. But that’s nothing.

Much more Orwellian is the Chinese government’s repression of minorities in Xinjiang, where people are tracked not just by their faces in public places but also through their phones.

Now, it’s rather ironic that this article is delivered on the same Internet technology that now also allows for mass surveillance.

Unfortunately, therein likes the duality of technology. After its heady days in the early- to mid-2000s, when content creation was truly democratised with social media and publication tools, things have taken a dark turn.

And it is not just in China, where the promise of liberty that the Internet seemed so ready to deliver, has become stillborn. Look to the West, as well.

The consensus in the US is that Russian trolls divided the country in the 2016 presidential elections by inflaming the deep-seated sentiments and grudges each competing group in society held.

However, nobody had to teach Donald Trump to shout out his anti-immigrant, deeply divisive rhetoric on a global stage. He’s got Twitter to thank for that.

Instead of uniting the masses, the social media technology that was invented to connect up old college mates and spread news quickly has today turned into a platform for misinformation.

Mistrust, discord and division are the first things a new user coming onboard today will face. Try commenting on a hot-button issue today, say, gay and lesbian rights, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or even Tiananmen, and you’ll learn that nobody is convincing anyone any more on the Internet with their preconceived notions of the truth.

The June 4 incident, as the Tiananmen massacre is also known, is now justified by online commentators – some real, some part of Beijing’s “50-cent” troll army, no doubt – as an unfortunate episode the country had to overcome to reach its superpower destiny.

Perhaps it is too simplistic to attribute everything bad to technology.

People can still find the information they want – folks in China can still use a virtual private networking (VPN) service to bypass the Great Firewall – but many probably don’t see the trouble in that today.

Ask how a young Chinese feels about life today and it’s clear things have become better than 30 years ago. So, why dredge up the past?

The same can be said about Singapore, perhaps. The controversial detention without trial of politicians in the 1960s, for example, is something that citizens can easily find out about. Why is there no uproar?

The biggest irony for technology is that it has brought about such profound improvements in the material life today – cheap taxi rides, convenient food deliveries and serious issues dressed up as entertainment – that it is easier to forget the unfortunate episodes.

Just like hiding a post on Facebook, it has also become convenient to ignore lessons from history. Users themselves have learnt to consign unpleasant things from the past to a black hole in cyberspace.

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