Why Chinese games undergo “maintenance” during Tiananmen Square anniversary month

Written by. Marco Farinaccia based on the original Japanese article (original article’s publication date: 2022-06-06 13:08 JST)

June 4 is a day that many places around the world use to commemorate the Tiananmen Square Incident, and 2022 marks 33 years since the incident occurred. However, in China, any activity or information that relates to it is strictly prohibited, especially during the anniversary period.

The Tiananmen Square Incident occurred on June 4, 1989, when people participating in pro-democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen Square, Beijing, were forcibly suppressed by the military with many being killed. The incident has long been considered a taboo topic within China.

The Chinese government’s regulation of the incident takes on various forms. The first deals with information that is submitted online. People are prevented from not only using the name of the incident but also any numbers that may refer to the date of June 4, 1989, such as “8964” or “64.” Of course, these restrictions are employed at all times, not just in June.

In addition, every year in June, there are systems put in place to prevent people from even pressing the “submit” button if there is any text that includes specific words. There are other examples of how thoroughly this regulation is enforced; for instance, when trying to make money transactions over the internet, people are unable to transfer amounts such as “8964” or “89.64” (Radio Free Asia).

Regulation of free speech on the internet by the Chinese government is already an everyday thing, but even then, June 4 is a special case. Most of the time, information regarding the incident is regulated beginning at the end of May and continues through to the middle of June. It has become customary for the government to notify different platforms, game companies, and others in advance and enforce these strict rules every year.

Naturally, these strict measures also extend to video games. At the beginning of June, the majority of games go into a fixed maintenance period, and there is an unspoken understanding among developers to not hold any in-game events around this time. Many games also place restrictions on the player’s ability to edit their profile as a method to prevent anyone from changing their icon, avatar, nickname, etc. to content that is connected to the commemoration of the Tiananmen Square Incident.

Based on this notification that a certain game company received from the government and later released on the internet, the company was ordered to review in-game content and to suspend the user’s ability to alter their profile between 8 p.m. June 3 and 8 p.m. June 20.

The notice includes precise instructions like, “Prohibit modifications to icons and usernames,” and “Each bit of information that is posted on things like the in-game chat function must be checked one by one before being published. If this is not possible, then you must restrict the use of the function itself.” In-game emojis and emotes that represent things like candles, tanks, and the numbers 89 and 64 are also restricted from use, and even emojis/emotes that can be combined to represent such things are prohibited.

There are also instructions concerning the period between June 2 and June 8 that demand almost faultless measures be taken, like, “Carefully examine all content,” and “There should be staff in place that are able to quickly manage the situation if a problem occurs.”

The iconic Tiananmen Square image of the Tank Man. This image is the reason that the word “Tank (坦克)” is considered taboo in China. There are no tank emojis in China, and almost no tank related games have been developed. Image Credit: Nihon Keizai Shimbun

What should be especially mentioned here are the warnings given to game companies regarding how they tell users about the reason for the maintenance. They are prohibited from stating things like, “Due to a sensitive time,” or “Due to a demand from the government,” and instead are required to use pretenses such as “game updates” or “maintenance.” Any referencing of the Tiananmen Square Incident is thoroughly avoided.

If you do a search for “game maintenance” on Chinese social media, you will find many users posting questions like, “When will this maintenance end?” or “Why is the game in maintenance again?” It seems that there are many people who are unaware that these maintenance periods are actually a method to regulate information concerning the Tiananmen Square Incident.

In the period around June 4, even VPNs that are used within China become unstable, with many cases of service errors or suspensions occurring. In general, foreign internet services are blocked within the country, and people are unable to use things like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and more. This means that to use these sites, people are required to use a VPN and directly connect to the sites via overseas servers.

Although the number of people in China who use VPNs is incredibly small, this also has an effect on certain gamers who do use them. For most overseas games and especially online games, without a VPN, users will not be able to login to the game or even play it at all. Thus, June is not only a troublesome time for users who play Chinese games, but also for those who often enjoy playing overseas games. It is for this reason that there is an unspoken sentiment that is permeating into the culture that says, “Oh, it’s that time of year again…”