A TV show unintentionally touched the most sensitive nerve of the Chinese government around the Tiananmen Square massacre anniversary day, as Beijing has been trying all these years to erase all memories of its bloody military crackdown more than three decades ago.
Li Jiaqi is China’s top e-commerce livestreamer. He earned the nickname “Lipstick King” after selling 15,000 lipsticks in just five minutes in 2018. During a live show on June 3, he and his co-host showed the audience a plate of Viennetta ice cream from the British brand Wall’s.
The layered ice cream, garnished with Oreo cookies on its sides and what seemed to be a chocolate ball and a chocolate stick on top, looked very much like the shape of a tank. This was an extremely sensitive icon to be shown in public just hours before midnight on June 4, as it linked with the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989.
And the live broadcast was cut short all of a sudden.
The Tiananmen Square massacre, also known as June 4 Incident in China, was a student-led demonstration asking for democracy. It was held in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, in 1989. After two months of protest without any solution, on June 4, the government ordered troops armed with assault rifles and followed by tanks to fire at the students without arms.
The crackdown, which killed hundreds, even thousands, of unarmed students, is banned from being mentioned in Chinese history and strictly censored in the media and online environment.
Chinese censors are very watchful in the period leading up to the anniversary every year. They would censor even the vaguest references to the event from the internet, from candle emojis to coded phrases like “May 35”.
So many young Chinese, especially the generation born after the massacre, have grown up knowing little to nothing of the event.
Li was born in 1992, so he might not know about this too. As well as many of Li’s mostly young fans, who were puzzled by the sudden suspension.
Shortly after the livestream was cut, Li went to his Weibo social media account and told his 50 million fans that there was a “technical glitch,” also asking them to “wait for a moment.” Two hours later, he posted another message, apologizing that the live broadcast could not continue due to “a failure of our internal equipment.”
On Monday, June 6, one could not search for Li’s name on Taobao, the Alibaba-owned online shopping site where Li’s show was live-streamed. Li has 60 million followers on this site.
Meanwhile, on Weibo, posts, and comments linking the suspension of Li’s broadcast to the tank-shaped ice cream grew widely. Some of his fans said they found out the truth after going around China’s Great Firewall—the authority tool of online censorship.
Netizens discussed the issue indirectly, but many were censored soon after being posted.
The uncensored posts said things like “trust our (Communist) Party and trust our state.”