Chinese cartoonist slams Twitter for refusing Tiananmen emoji

©Agence France-Presse

Chinese dissident cartoonist Badiucao says the social networking site Twitter is pandering to China

Hong Kong (AFP) - Chinese artist Badiucao, whose anonymous political satire infuriated Beijing, on Thursday announced a protest campaign against Twitter for what he says is pandering to China, after the platform's refusal to create a special tank man emoji to mark the 30th Tiananmen anniversary.

This is the second time the social media giant has come under fire in the last week over its handling of China-related content, after it apologised for mistakenly suspending accounts critical of the government -- just days ahead of the anniversary of the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

The 33-year-old Badiucao, who has been compared to Banksy, said he reached out to Twitter ahead of the anniversary and offered to create a custom emoji -- based on the famous image of a man standing in front of a column of tanks during the crackdown -- that would appear next to the hashtag #Tiananmen30.

Such emojis have been deployed on Twitter to mark a variety of special occasions and events, from the premieres of Hollywood blockbusters to national elections.

But the platform -- which is blocked in China -- told Badiucao it would not be able to collaborate with him on the anniversary because "emojis are limited resources at Twitter," according to an email exchange the artist shared with AFP.

"I was a bit confused," Badiucao told AFP. "How come they are a limited resource? I asked them if they had not enough graphic designers... or if it was a financial issue. I wasn't satisfied with their explanation."

While Twitter said in that email that it was glad to be a platform for conversations about Tiananmen, Badiucao said the firm declined to work with him in order to avoid the wrath of Chinese authorities.

China's ruling Communist Party is highly sensitive to criticism, and discussion of the 1989 pro-democracy protests and their brutal suppression at Tiananmen Square on June 4 is strictly taboo.

Ahead of the anniversary every year, authorities clamp down on activists and further tighten internet censorship to prevent any mention of the event.

'Very problematic'

Badiucao, who lives in exile in Australia, said that while Twitter does not work in China, companies from the country advertise on the platform.

He told AFP in a recent interview that he and his family have been under threat ever since he was forced to cancel a highly anticipated show in Hong Kong last year, allegedly due to pressure from Chinese authorities.

"I think working with me is very problematic (for Twitter)," he said.

"They are thinking about the Chinese market, they want these advertisements from businesses for the company. So somehow they compromise their principles of free speech."

AFP asked Twitter about Chinese entities advertising on the platform, but the firm did not provide any details.

A source at Twitter familiar with the matter told AFP that the company did not have time to put out a special emoji for the Tiananmen anniversary, and that such emojis are typically prepared months ahead of the event.

The source also pointed to widespread discussion about Tiananmen on Twitter, and special collections of tweets curated by the firm on the occasion.

2020 anniversary

Badiucao, whose subversive pieces often mock Chinese President Xi Jinping, said his protest campaign will begin Friday.

He hopes Twitter users will post selfies next to his -- or their own -- Tiananmen emoji designs with the hashtag #Tiananmen31 for next year's anniversary.

"Now I gave Twitter a whole year to do it," he said. "Let's see what excuse they come up with."

This is not the first time Twitter has faced criticism over special emojis.

In 2016, Donald Trump's campaign accused Twitter of unfairly restricting its content, in particular refusing a special emoji with a hashtag attacking Hillary Clinton, Trump's opponent in the race for the White House.

Weeks later, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was a glaring absence at a meeting between then president-elect Trump and a number of top tech executives.

Politico reported that Dorsey was "bounced" as retribution for the emoji refusal.