HONG KONG — Maybe it was just a coincidence, but when the Shanghai Stock Exchange fell 64.89 points Monday — uncannily echoing the date of the Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy students on June 4, 1989 — the Chinese blogosphere went into a tizzy.
“I want to thank all the stock traders!” one microblogger wrote.
“Maybe God does exist?” another wrote.
Whatever the reason, the strange trick the stock market played on the Chinese Communist Party sent the country’s censors scrambling as well, prompting them to undertake unusually strenuous efforts to block references to the tragedy that Chinese leaders have tried desperately to erase from their country’s consciousness.
In a nation where numerology is taken very seriously, the censors quickly began blocking searches for “stock market,” “Shanghai stock,” “Shanghai stock market,” “index,” and other related terms. They also deleted large numbers of microblog postings about the numerical surprise.
And even before tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered several hours later around Victoria Park in downtown Hong Kong for the annual vigil, censors were also blocking searches for “Victoria Park,” “black clothes,’’ “silent tribute,” and even “today.”
Not only did the broad index of the Shanghai exchange fall 64.89 points, the index opened that morning at 2346.98, a figure that, to some, looked like the date of the crackdown written backward, followed by the 23d anniversary.
The Shanghai Stock Exchange Composite Index is calculated by adding up the market capitalizations of hundreds of stocks and then converting the sum into an index based on a value of 100 on Dec. 19, 1990. Richard W. Kershaw, managing director for Asia forensic technology at FTI Consulting, a global financial investigations company, said it would be almost impossible for anyone to coordinate the buying and selling of so many stocks to produce a specific result.
But hackers have targeted computer systems at other stock exchanges in the past and Kershaw said it was at least possible that this could have occurred in China. He predicted that the government would investigate, adding, “You can bet we’ll never hear the results.”
Chinese culture puts a very strong, sometimes superstitious, emphasis on numbers and dates. The Beijing Olympics started at 8:08 p.m. on Aug. 8, 2008, a time and date chosen for the eights, considered an auspicious number.
The candlelight vigil in Hong Kong drew a crowd that organizers estimated at “over 180,000,” which would make it the biggest of the annual events since 1989. Organizers have estimated the crowds in 1990, 2009, 2010, and 2011 at 150,000. Police here were more cautious, putting the turnout at 85,000; they had estimated the annual turnout from 2009 through 2011 at 62,800, 113,000, and 77,000 and the 1990 vigil at 80,000.
There was also an unusually large turnout of people who appeared to be in their teens or 20s. Until the last several years, the vigils had been mostly attended by people in their 40s and older — those who had experienced soaring hopes for democratization in 1989 followed by crushing disappointment.
Andy Lo, 20, a university student, said social media like Facebook had been filled this year with calls to attend the vigil. But he and others there were unable to explain why this had happened. “I used to think it was just a ritual,” he said. “We want something to change, the voice for change is much stronger now, but I can’t account for it.”