Tiananmen & Twitter

Tomorrow, June 4th, marks the 20th anniversary of the bloody affair in Tiananmen Square, when the Chinese army opened machine gun fire on unarmed protesters. In an attempt to obviate any risk of renewing the spirit of dissent, China is taking measures to prevent communication:

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Not that we exactly needed more evidence that communication technologies are instrumental in 21st-century activism, but this certainly helps confirm it. And since China is credited with having the largest online community, the impact goes deep.

This maneuver to counter dissent has interesting connections to the massacre, since one of the key demands of students gathering in Tiananmen was for free media. Such issues should concern any rhetorician who is interested in who has the power to speak, who is denied such power, and the influence of digital technologies on expression.

One may wonder how protesters will react to this sadly predictable move on the part of the Chinese government. How will citizens communicate when the channels for doing so are blocked? Who will lead when leaders have been placed on house arrest or “strongly encouraged” to vacation away from the capital for the 20th anniversary? Furthermore, since none of these tactics are surprising, how might activists elsewhere learn from them? The digital networks that support much of the transnational activism that is highly touted these days could easily disappear. What then? How can those that identify with certain social movements account for “cutting the head off,” where leaders are minimized, or worse, executed? And what might this mean in our networked age, where movements could be seen as acephalous?


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