Just days before one of the most sensitive anniversaries in China, Twitter suspended a host of Chinese-language accounts, many of which identified as “anti-CCP [Chinese Communist Party],” in what the company said was an accident.
The action, which some say may have affected more than 1,000 accounts, occurred overnight between May 31 and June 1. It drew heavy criticism from China commentators on the platform, with many speculating that the timing of the suspensions three days before the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre was more than a coincidence.
On May 31, many Chinese dissidents, rights lawyers, activists, college students, and ordinary netizens reported that they had lost access to their Twitter accounts. While Twitter is banned in China, many netizens circumvent the internet blockade to use the platform.
One Chinese Twitter user, whose account is named “709 Inciter,” said he suddenly found his Twitter account frozen on May 31.
“I cannot reply, retweet, comment, tweet, like or send private messages. I can see my tweets. However, all my followers and followings got cleared away. My friends cannot find me when searching for my username,” the user told the Chinese-language edition of The Epoch Times.
Tang Baiqiao, a student leader during the 1989 protests and president of the Democracy Academy of China, posted on his Facebook account on May 31: “My Twitter account was attacked! I cannot log in now. Almost all the materials (in my account) have disappeared. Not only me, but also almost all Twitter accounts of other members of our organization were attacked, with their contents deleted.”
Sasha Gong, a former Voice of America journalist, condemned Twitter’s actions.
“So far, every suspended account I have located was critical of the Chinese government,” she said in a statement about the suspension of her Twitter account.
“Twitter’s action seems to be in accordance with that of the Chinese authorities, who launched sever crackdown against any criticism in the eve of the big anniversary [sic]. No wonder many Chinese call it ‘the Twitter massacre.’”
Amid mounting reports of the account suspensions, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) voiced his concern on June 1, writing that “Twitter has become a Chinese govt censor.”
In a statement on June 1, Twitter said that the suspensions were an inadvertent result of its routine efforts to curb spam and “inauthentic” behavior.
“We suspended a number of accounts this week,” it said. “However, some of these were involved in commentary about China. These accounts were not mass reported by the Chinese authorities — this was a routine action on our part.
“Sometimes, our routine actions catch false positives or we make errors. We apologize. We’re working today to ensure we overturn any errors but that we remain vigilant in enforcing our rules for those who violate them.”
Some users, however, weren’t convinced by Twitter’s explanation. One user, named Jack Blum, commented, “And this just so happened to occur right before the anniversary of Tiananmen?”
Other users, in response, posted an image of Twitter’s bird mascot with a hammer and sickle—the symbol of the Chinese Communist Party—as its eye, on top of a red background.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the massacre of peacefully protesting students in Tiananmen Square, which remains a strictly censored topic in China. In the lead-up to the sensitive date, China censors have gone into overdrive to scrub the web of content relating to the 1989 tragedy.
Meanwhile, many Chinese netizens, who use virtual private network software to circumvent China’s “Great Firewall” to access foreign websites and social media, have complained on Twitter that it’s become harder for them “jump over the Great Firewall.”
The Great Firewall refers to China’s internet censorship apparatus that includes blockading foreign websites and censoring content deemed undesirable by the Chinese Communist Party.
Since last August, the Chinese regime has been clamping down on Chinese citizens’ activities on the U.S. social media site. Many Chinese dissidents and commentators have been forced by local police to shut down their accounts, while some have been detained and imprisoned.
In December, Twitter user Liu Hongbo, from Yangzhou City in China’s Jiangsu Province, was sentenced to six months in prison for posting more than 400 tweets that allegedly “defamed the Chinese Communist Party and Party leaders.”
In October, independent commentator Wang Yajun was detained for 10 days for his Twitter activity. After his release, he wrote, “Twitter, it’s time to say goodbye!”