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Did China silence a social media influencer over a tank-shaped ice cream?

Tiananmen Square protesters recount massacre
Tiananmen Square protesters recount massacre 30 years later 15:50

Where in the world is Austin Li Jiaqi? The famous online influencer is usually easy to find, selling everything from Tom Ford underwear to Roche-Posay facemasks on China's e-commerce platforms. But on the evening of June 3, he suddenly went dark. 

His millions of followers were mystified. A non-explanation posted to his official account on Weibo, China's version of Twitter, said his team was dealing with "technical issues."

Chinese social media influencer Austin Li Jiaqi is seen in a screengrab from one of his videos, in which he promotes a wide array of products on China's e-commerce platforms.

It wasn't long before an army of amateur online sleuths were on the case. 

First, they pointed out that June 3 is a politically sensitive date in China — the eve of the bloody 1989 assault on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. One of the iconic photographs from that time is of a lone demonstrator standing in the middle of the road facing an advancing Chinese tank.

A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Cangan Blvd. in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. The man, calling for an end to the recent violence and bloodshed against pro-democracy demonstrators, was pulled away by bystan
A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Cangan Blvd. in Tiananmen Square, June 5, 1989. AP Photo/Jeff Widener

Anytime around June 4, it's not a good idea to mention tanks in China.

The online quest for Li zeroed in on a dessert he had been selling to his followers just before he went offline, for Wall's ice cream. In his sales pitch, Li smiles as a dish is held up with a block of vanilla ice cream on it, decorated with two round brown biscuits on the side, and a tube-shaped sticking out of the top. 

It would seem that to China's internet censors, it looked very much like… a tank.

Chinese online influencer Austin Li Jiaqi, left, appears in a video posted to one of his social media accounts touting Wall's ice cream.

Could Austin Li Jiaqi have been sending out a coded pro-democracy message?  It's unlikely. To protect his business as a social media influence — said to have made him billions over the years — he has remained conspicuously on the right side of the Communist Party. 

Could it have been sabotage by a member of his team? We may never know, but the fact that Li is still offline shows the extent of the enduring political paranoia in Beijing.

It's been more than three decades since the Tiananmen Square crackdown, which killed hundreds, possibly thousands of Chinese civilians, but any reference to it in China remains strictly verboten.

Report: Censorship has grown in China, but so has resistance 01:34

Especially in early June, censors ban and quickly remove anything that could be construed as a veiled reference to Tiananmen. People aren't allowed to update their status or personal bios on social media accounts, or to post candle emojis for any reason.

Or as it turns out, sell ice cream with cookies in the wrong place.

CBS News' Shuai Zhang contributed to this report.

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