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Echoes of Tiananmen in Shanghai market fall

A candlelight vigil in Hong Kong marks the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Story highlights

  • The Chinese stock market's fall on Monday was a potent and, for the government, dangerous symbol.
  • The Shanghai Composite index tumbled 64.89 points on the anniversary of the June 4 1989 crackdown
  • The Tiananmen Square crackdown is known in Chinese simply as "six-four"
  • Searches for the phrase "Shanghai Composite index" were banned by censors on popular microblogs

In a country that ascribes great meaning to numbers, the Chinese stock market's fall on Monday was a potent and, for the government, dangerous symbol.

The Shanghai Composite index tumbled 64.89 points -- a freakish coincidence on the anniversary of the June 4 1989 crackdown on democracy protesters, an event that is known in Chinese simply as "six-four".

The government, which has long tried to silence discussion of the bloody events in Tiananmen Square 23 years ago, acted quickly. Searches for the phrase "Shanghai Composite index" were banned by censors on popular microblogs.

"According to the relevant laws, regulations and policies, the results for this search term cannot be displayed," Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, told users.

Other censored search terms included the words "today", "anniversary", "blood" and "candle", a reference to a candlelight vigil held every year in Hong Kong.

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Word of the stock market's apparent memorial to the democracy protesters still spread quickly on the internet.

The day had, after all, started with another bizarre coincidence. The market's opening level was 2,346.98 points. With a little bit of parsing, the message was clear: the 23 referred to the fact of its being the 23rd anniversary of the killings, while 46.98 was the date rendered backwards.

"Looking at the opening and the drop of the market today, I finally realise that there truly is a big force behind its movements," said Wang Chunxiao, a Weibo blogger.

Another said more simply: "Today's market really has a deeper meaning."

Monday's market performance, a drop of 2.7 per cent, was also the biggest daily fall in the main Chinese equity index since November last year.

The Communist party's official verdict on the events of June 4 concluded that the actions of China's leaders were justified to "quell the counter-revolutionary rebellion", as it called the peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations centred on Tiananmen Square in central Beijing.

Since then, the party has worked to erase all trace of the incident from public memory and discourse within China.

However, with Chinese travelling abroad as never before, and information flowing more freely on the internet despite censorship, the government has had to redouble its efforts to snuff out any allusions to the protests.

In Hong Kong, a record 180,000 people attended an annual candlelit vigil to commemorate the Tiananmen massacre in the only public mourning of the events allowed on Chinese soil.

Lee Cheuk-yan, a member of Hong Kong's legislative council and chairman of the group that organises the annual vigil, said attendance had swelled in recent years because of growing participation by younger generations and mainland visitors who cannot publicly commemorate the event back home.

A fifth of this year's visitors to a temporary June 4 memorial museum in Hong Kong were from the mainland, he said.

Comments by Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, about democracy and other political openings have raised hopes among some activists in recent months that the country's leaders might be willing to revisit the events of 1989 for the first time.

But others say that the Communist party is still unlikely to delve back into the most painful chapter in its recent history because doing so would threaten to tear the leadership apart and undermine its rule.