For 20 years, China has attempted to stifle the collective memory of a nationwide movement for political freedom that grew out of Tiananmen Square and ended in bloodshed on June 4, 1989.
Tamping down the nation’s recollections has met with success, but on the 20th anniversary those who refuse to forget are speaking out.
For the past decade, China’s economic growth miracle has eclipsed its politics. Tiananmen didn’t seem to matter anymore. As the boom slows, more people are reflecting on the movement and its deadly ending. There is still no credible accounting of those who were killed in Beijing when the army rolled in. Estimates range from hundreds to thousands. Most Chinese who remember the marches that drew in 1 million Beijingers don’t speak about it openly — for fear of reprisal and for not wanting to relive those terrible days. Those not old enough to witness it know very little. It remains the biggest taboo.
On the 20th anniversary, there are cracks in the collective amnesia. The secretly recorded memoirs of former Party leader Zhao Ziyang, who supported the students and was subsequently placed under house arrest until his death, were smuggled from China and published this spring. Chinese-language copies are widely available online. The Tiananmen Mothers, a group of victims’ families, have kept to their task of recording victims' stories. Their unofficial leader, Ding Zilin, was hustled from Beijing for the anniversary. Yet a Facebook group dedicated to the mothers and to posting their family sagas remains accessible.
Last month, 20 Chinese intellectuals met to discuss the democracy movement in the aftermath of Tiananmen. Several published their thoughts on blogs, addressing their own failure to keep the movement alive.
“We have kept silent about June 4th collectively for such a long time that we are actually participating in concealing this crime,” Professor Cui Weiping wrote in a blog post translated by the China Digital Times. “Such a practice has made each one of us somewhat responsible for the problem.”
On the evening of June 4, Vogue China and Gucci will hold a high-end party a few blocks from Tiananmen to toast one of the fashion house’s designers. It’s quite unlikely that Beijing organizers are unaware of the anniversary. Rather, it seems just one more example of the desire among many to forget.
With all that in mind, GlobalPost asked five people — four involved in the movement and one too young to remember — to reflect on why Tiananmen still matters:
FANG LIZHI is an astrophysicist widely credited for helping to ignite the pro-democracy student movements, first in 1986, then in 1989, with widely read essays on government reform. After the crackdown, he lived in asylum for a year at the U.S. embassy in Beijing. He now teaches physics at the University of Arizona:
“Historical events, like the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, always play an indelible role on the subsequent developments of a society, regardless of whether people in the society remember them. Therefore, forgetting history is a way to make one an idiot.”
WANG DAN was a student leader of the democracy movement. He was China’s “most wanted” student after the crackdown and later served seven years in prison. He was released to the United States in 1998, banned from China. He now lives in Los Angeles:
“There are several reasons why Tiananmen still matters: First, no nation-state in history has ever been able to remain in power without remembering its past, so it is important for the future of China that we keep our history alive. Second, many of the features in Chinese society today, for instance, the institutionalization of corruption and the precedence of the economy over all other aspects of social development, originated from the Tiananmen massacre.”
By reflecting on June 4 we can also reflect on the past 20 years of reform and opening, and in this way hopefully provide a basis for new thinking for further constructive development.”
GAO WENQIAN worked as a communist party scholar of Chinese history when he witnessed the protests and crackdown. He is the author of “Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary.” Gao believes the Chinese government will have to face the consequences of its actions someday because:
“First, the Tiananmen massacre is unprecedented in China’s modern history. What was most unforgivable was that a government would order its standing army to openly massacre its people. The right to life is the most sacred of rights and there is no graver violation of human rights than this act. If such a crime against humanity goes unpunished by history, then there is simply no justice in this world at all!”
“Second, June 4th is the 'death point' of the Communist Party. So in my view, in no way will the party grant June 4th justice. However, the June 4th incident was not isolated, but the result of the contradictions and conflicts inherent in the one-party system. After 20 years, the social contradictions that led to June 4th have not been solved but have in fact intensified. China now is just like an orange in the late spring: fair without, foul within. Under the veneer of economic prosperity, the body of society is festering; danger lurks everywhere. June 4th has become an obstacle that has blocked social transformation.”
Inspired by the demonstrations in Beijing, ZHANG LIJIA (author of "Socialism is Great! A Worker's Memoir of the New China") organized a mass protest of workers at her Nanjing missile factory on May 28, 1989:
“Like a match thrown onto kindling, students from all over the country took to the streets. They were soon joined by millions of ordinary citizens who were disgusted by corruption, inflation and lack of personal freedom. I had been working in a missile-production factory for nine years in Nanjing, my hometown. The factory housed us in identical block buildings, indoctrinated us at meeting rooms, and controlled us with strict rules: no lipsticks, no flared trousers or sex before marriage.
"On that Sunday, I decided to organize one, too, to show our support. Under the wary eyes of our factory leaders, more than 500 demonstrators marched towards the Drum Tower, Nanjing’s version of the Tiananmen. Feeling defeated, I left China in 1990. When I returned a few years later, I found a booming economy and gradually a space called 'privacy' that hadn’t really existed before. People could finally dress and date as they pleased.
"We’re still in a cage here. But for many, my fellow marchers included, it has grown so large that we hardly feel its limits. In that sense the 1989 protests weren’t a total failure. It still matters, because without our efforts, China’s rulers might have not expanded the cage at all.”
LAWRENCE, 23, is a recent university graduate in Beijing. We’re using only his English name to protect his identity:
“I first learned about the incident when I was in middle school. The teacher made it seem like something very minor. I didn’t think of it again until I arrived in Beijing to study at university. At that time, someone showed me a documentary on the internet about what happened in 1989. I didn’t believe what I saw, and I asked my parents about it. They told me not to talk about it, but I feel I need to know because this is an important part of China’s history. I don’t have all the information yet, but I will continue to look for answers about what happened 20 years ago.”