Illegal Flower Tribute 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.
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.”