Startups

Chinese Internet Regulators Investigate Startup After Tiananmen Square Anniversary Post

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Shanghai-based Xiaohongshu—which means “Little Red Book” in Chinese and is backed by

Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.

and

Tencent Holdings Ltd.

—wrote in a post on China’s

Twitter

-like Weibo platform on June 4, “Tell me loudly, what is the date today?”

The Friday post, which was shared on the 32nd anniversary of the day that Chinese troops crushed peaceful student protests in Tiananmen Square, was quickly deleted. By midnight Friday in China, Xiaohongshu’s entire Weibo account—which had 14 million followers—had disappeared, replaced by a message that said the account was unavailable for suspected violations of laws and regulations.

Xiaohongshu, which has been described as a combination of an Instagram-like social media platform and an

Amazon

-style e-commerce site, is working with the Cyberspace Administration of China to conduct an internal investigation of the incident, according to people briefed on the matter.

It isn’t clear what the original intent of the Xiaohongshu social media post was, though one of the people familiar with the matter said the post wasn’t intended to refer to the events of 1989. In recent months, Xiaohongshu had made similar posts on Fridays to celebrate the coming weekend.

A spokesperson for Xiaohongshu couldn’t be reached for comment over the weekend. Likewise, phone calls to the Cyberspace Administration of China seeking comment went unanswered.

The Twitter-like Weibo, with more than 500 million monthly active users, is one of China’s biggest social media platforms and a key way for brands to communicate with consumers.

An investigation, especially one deemed politically sensitive to China’s government, could complicate any plans by the firm to list its shares in the U.S. Technology news outlet The Information reported in March that Xiaohongshu had hired a former

Citigroup

executive as its chief financial officer and was in discussions with several banks for an initial public offering that could value the company at more than $10 billion. Xiaohongshu has said it has no IPO plans.

The Communist Party’s 1989 crackdown on protesters in central Beijing remains one of the most politically delicate events in modern Chinese history. The government over the years has tried to suppress commemoration of the event.

This year, for a second straight year, Hong Kong authorities banned an annual candlelight vigil to commemorate June 4, citing Covid-19 social-distancing rules, though thousands of people walked past the usual venue of the event with their cellphone flashlights shining.

On the Chinese mainland, the crackdown isn’t taught in textbooks nor aired on television networks, and in the weeks leading up to the anniversary each year, authorities round up dissidents, warn victims’ relatives and station police officers on street corners.

The few Chinese media articles that have broached the subject referred to it obliquely as “a historical incident that happened 32 years ago.” In an editorial published Friday, the Communist Party-run Global Times declared that, in acting as it did in June 1989, “the leadership of the Communist Party of China has saved the fate of the nation at a critical juncture.”

In recent years, Chinese internet regulators have stepped up their online scrutiny around June 4. Social media posts alluding to dates, images and names associated with the protests are automatically deleted. Users aren’t allowed to update their profile pictures on popular social media platforms like messaging service WeChat, frustrating users who had previously marked the occasion by changing their avatars to depict a lighted candle.

This year, as in years past, several embassies in Beijing, including the U.K.’s, posted an image of a burning candle on their Weibo pages. The posts were quickly snuffed out, though similar posts on Twitter, which can only be accessed in China using virtual private networks, remained online.

Internet controls like these are making it harder for young people to learn about the protests and the government crackdown that followed. In China’s technology industry, which attracts some of the country’s brightest young people, many have little knowledge about that particular chapter in history.

Xiaohongshu, founded in 2013, has more than 100 million monthly active users. It is one of the most popular apps among young Chinese consumers in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, who use it to browse, shop and post reviews on a range of products, from fashion brands to hotels.

The Xiaohongshu incident is the latest in a string of recent run-ins involving technology companies around the June 4 anniversary.

On Friday,

Microsoft Corp.

acknowledged that its Bing search engine had temporarily blocked image searches in the U.S. for “tank man”—the iconic image of a man standing in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square. Microsoft said that the apparent blockage was “due to an accidental human error,” and the search results were restored.

In 2017, Bluegogo, China’s third-largest bike sharing startup at the time, ran a controversial advertising campaign that it launched on June 4. The campaign replaced the icons for some bikes with tanks—which rolled through the streets of Beijing during the 1989 crackdown. Users were encouraged to choose the bikes represented by tank avatars to win prizes.

Write to Keith Zhai at [email protected]

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