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Illegal Flower Tribute (Chinese: 非法献花; Pinyin: Fēifǎ Xiànhuā) refers to a day of commemoration organized by Chinese internet users at the headquarters of Google China in Beijing in January 2010. The real life homage took place as a result of Google’s announcement of a possible pullout from mainland China following the disclosure of a cyberattack carried out by Chinese hackers against dozens of high-tech companies including Google.
Background: Operation Aurora
Beginning in mid-2009, a series of sophisticated cyber attacks were carried out against at least 34 high-profile companies including Google, Adobe Systems and Juniper Networks. Dubbed Operation Aurora, the primary objective of the attack was to gain access to the aforementioned company servers and potentially modify source code repositories, according to McAfee’s report on the incident. CNET also provided a good explanation of the attack:
On January 12th, 2010, the attack was publicly disclosed by Google via company’s blog post titled “A New Approach to China”, which identified China as the source of the attacks. The blog post further revealed that some of its intellectual property had been stolen and suggested the hackers were able to gain access to Gmail accounts through Internet Explorer. According to the Financial Times, two accounts used by renowned Chinese dissident and artist Ai Weiwei were also compromised with their contents read and copied.
Illegal Flower Tribute
Compounded by the Chinese government’s lack of cooperation and uncompromising stance on Internet censorship, Google stated that unless it was allowed to run a completely uncensored search engine, its employees staffed in China might withdraw from the country. Tension continued to rise as Chinese news agencies speculated that Operation Aurora was an American government conspiracy. However, according to an online poll organized by NetEase, the majority of Chinese internet users wanted Google to stay in China.
As the possibility of Google exiting China became more and more likely, many well-wishers paid a visit to Google China’s headquarters in Beijing to lay floral bouquets, cards, poems, candles, bows, and messages in a mock tribute to Google. Some of the most notable messages (translated) included:
“Google – a real man.”
“Farewell for Reunion.”
“Thank you for holding values over profits!”
“Google, the mountains can’t stop our contacts, and we’ll get over the wall to find you!”
(The “wall” is a reference to “The Great Firewall” of China)
Subsequent visitors, however, discovered that the flowers donated by previous visitors were removed by security guards. When asked about the removal of flower bouquets and its justifications, one security guard stated that people should “apply for permits at the relevant department; otherwise they were conducting an ‘illegal flower tribute.’”
Censorship of “Illegal Flower Tribute”
The guard’s explanation, especially his word choice of “illegal flower tribute,” came off as ironic to many Chinese internet users and the phrase became highly sought after on the Chinese web. The Chinese authorities responded promptly by censoring the keyword phrase “illegal flower tribute” altogether on Chinese websites, such as Baidu and Sina Blog where articles and comments about Google China suddenly became unavailable for viewing. Any attempt at creating an article on the subject was blocked by a message that read “this item is currently being created by another editor.”
Response on Twitter
However, tech-savvy Chinese netizens quickly found a way around the country’s notorious firewall “Golden Shield Project” via proxy servers and posted Illegal Flower Tribute-related updates through microblogging service Twitter with the hashtag #googlecn. Meanwhile, Twitter account @CDTimes provided real-time English translations of the tweets:
@qhgy says: RT @Lyooooo: If Google leaves I won’t use Baidu or let my children or grandchildren use it (If I have them) #GoogleCN
@clowwindy says: The wings of some birds are too pretty; to lock them in a cage to enjoy them is evil #GoogleCN
@miyafan says: Now begin doing two tasks 1. Quickly use Google to search censored material 2. study how to scale the wall #GoogleCN
@aiww says: Long live Fanfou, long live Google #GoogleCN
@zz4040 says: Google is a real man #GoogleCN
The most notable tweet came from @jason5ng32, whose tweet has been quoted numerous times:
Chinese: @jason5ng32: 清华科技园的保安宣称“非法献花”，在 google 和 baidu 搜索该词，无任何结果。天朝从此又创造了一个既往开来的新词：“非法献花”！将“非法”和“献花”两个字组合在一起，可见我们生活在一个价值观被怎样扭曲的时代。
English Translation: @jason5ng32: The Tsinghua Science Park security declared “illegal flower donation” but searching this phrase on Google or Baidu has no results. China has now created a new term: “illegal flower donation”! To put “illegal” and “flower donation” together in one phrase, we live in an era of truly distorted values.
The controversy of “Google vs. China” led more Chinese netizens to pay illegal flower tributes at Google China’s headquarters and the pictures of people bestowing flowers at the entrance were shared on various image-sharing sites. By January 17th, 2010, several t-shirt designs expressing support for the illegal flower tributes began to emerge on the merchandising website Zazzle.
Automatic Redirect to Google Hong Kong
On March 23rd, 2010, Google started to redirect all search queries from Google.cn (Google China) to Google.com.hk. (Google Hong Kong). Since Hong Kong is a special entity vested with independent judicial power and immunity from most Chinese laws, Google’s operations in Hong Kong served as a relay point to bypass Chinese regulators and thus allow uncensored Simplified Chinese search results to be displayed. The automatic redirect of Google China to Google HK eventually came to a halt on June 30th, 2010, in order to avoid getting their Internet Content Provider license revoked.
Goojje (Chinese: 谷姐, pronounced GOO-jay) is a parody website that encourages Google to stay in China by complying with Internet censorship laws. The site features a similar logo to Google; the name of the website can be roughly translated in English as the “older sister of Google.” Although parodical in nature, Goojje operates on a functional search engine that apparently combines the resources of Baidu and Google, the two most visited search engines in mainland China. The site has been threatened with legal actions by Google for its copyright infringement and criticized for its compliance with the censorship laws.
Washington Post – Google China cyberattack part of vast espionage campaign, experts say
YouTubeCN.com – site is defunct
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