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China’s online ‘tank’ cake snafu raises questions about Tiananmen

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HONG KONG — An online snafu involving China’s most popular e-commerce livestreamer and a cake decorated to look like a tank raised questions among some Chinese about the crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 .

The ordering of People’s Liberation Army soldiers to fire on unarmed civilians is a sensitive topic that has long been heavily censored by the ruling Communist Party.

Li Jiaqi, China’s most popular e-commerce live streamer, is known for selling everything from lipsticks to frying pans on his online show, where viewers can purchase items directly at discounted prices.

He rose to popularity in 2018, earning the nickname ‘Lipstick King’ after trying 380 lipsticks during a seven-hour stream and selling 15,000 lipsticks in just five minutes during an online shopping festival. .

But last Friday, Li’s online show, which draws tens of thousands of viewers, was cut short after a woman appeared on camera holding what appears to be a white cupcake decorated with wafers and cookies for look like a military tank, according to published screenshots. on social media platforms.

The abrupt ending left thousands of her fans confused. Li briefly became a trending search term in Chinese social media.

The show was on June 3, the day before the June 4, 1989 birthday, crackdown on thousands of students gathered in the vast square in the heart of Beijing to demand more democracy. Hundreds, if not thousands of demonstrators are said to have died.

A die most famous photographs of military repression, commonly referred to as “Tank Man”, shows a man holding plastic bags standing in front of a line of tanks, appearing to block their approach on Beijing’s main east-west thoroughfare, Avenue of Eternal Peace or Chang’an Avenue. year. All these images are censored in China.

Shortly after his stream ended on Friday, Li posted on his Weibo platform, similar to Twitter, saying the stream ended early due to a “technical error.” A replay of the stream also failed to upload.

Neither Alibaba nor Li’s agency MeiOne responded to requests for comment.

His absence sparked a flurry of speculation among Chinese people online, many of whom were born after 1989 and because almost all mentions of the crackdown are censored in China, know little of what happened then.

Keywords and phrases related to the incident are censored. Searches for “Tiananmen June 4” or “Tiananmen 1989” yield no results on search engines and social media platforms in China.

“Who can tell me what happened to Li Jiaqi? said one user on Weibo. “I can’t find any information.”

By Monday, Chinese censors had deleted all photos of the tank cake and any clips from the Chinese internet live stream. Li has not appeared on another livestream session since.

Those familiar with the Tiananmen Square massacre wondered, using cryptic allusions to June 4 to evade censorship, if Li was aware of the sensitivity of showing a tank on a show like his.

“It became Li Jiaqi’s fault for not knowing about an incident that he is not allowed to know about, and now he has to prove that he really was unaware of an incident. which he is not aware of,” commented a Weibo user with the handle MaxWell_2000. , highlighting the Catch-22 nature of the situation.

The apparent effort to prevent people from seeing the show prompted some people to say they were learning about the Tiananmen crackdown for the first time.

“I didn’t know this before, but now I think I know,” said one user on Weibo, where self-censorship posts using vague language to refer to sensitive topics are commonplace to evade censors and prevent account suspensions.

The apparent censorship of Li’s show had the opposite effect of drawing more attention to her and what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989, said Shaun Rein, founder and chief executive of China Market Research Group in Shanghai.

“For many Chinese users, taking Li offline at this time could have the opposite effect of drawing attention to an incident that no one in China usually talks about,” Rein said.