Un-Remembering the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing

A Chinese man standing alone to block a line of tanks heading from Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 5, 1989 Photograph by Jeff Widener/AP Photo

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, which began when the ruling Chinese Communist Party dispatched soldiers and tanks to break up student-led pro-democracy protests in central Beijing. It ended with at least several hundred—probably several thousand—dead.

The national tragedy has been effectively erased from China’s collective memory through careful editing of history textbooks and censorship that blocks foreign websites and books describing the events of June 4, 1989. (In state media, the killings are referred to only as a “political incident.”) In her excellent new book, The People’s Republic of Amnesia, Louisa Lim, a former Beijing correspondent for NPR, describes an informal poll of Beijing university students in which just 15 out of 100 could identify the famous “Tank Man” photo—the iconic image of a lone protestor trying to block a column of tanks in Beijing.

“Twenty-five years after the massacre, the topic remains taboo here,” noted Helen Gao, a young Chinese writer, in a New York Times op-ed published today. “I try to piece together the events of that spring through underground documentaries, foreign reports and conversations with my parents.” Yet, she adds, not all her peers are so curious. “The party is responsible for distorting my generation’s understanding of history through state education and blocking our access to sensitive information. Yet even those who are well-aware of the state’s meddling make little effort to seek truth and push for change.”

The generation born in the 1980s and ’90s often gets a bad rap in China as being careerist and allegedly selfish, single children more focused on getting ahead (or at least, not being left behind) in a very competitive job market than on forging broader social change. Maybe, suggested Gao, deep cynicism lies behind what she calls “this indifference toward politics and civil rights.” As she wrote: “If the previous generations learned the cost of political transgression through persecutions and crackdowns, today’s youth, especially those from elite backgrounds, instinctively understand the futility of challenging the system.”

Today I visited the leafy campus of elite Tsinghua University, often called the Harvard of China. In 1989, several thousand Tsinghua students joined the demonstrations. Today  no visible or widely known public activities cite those events, according to students I spoke with. (Not least because campus authorities would quickly squash any such vigils.) One young professor I interviewed told me he liked history books; when I asked him if would do anything to mark today’s anniversary, he blinked, at first uncomprehending.

When I reminded him, he nodded quickly. Yes, he said he did know the broad outlines of the 1989 massacre, but hadn’t thought about it recently. To be fair, he isn’t particularly cynical or materialistic; he studies energy-storage systems in hopes for a future in which widespread use of electric vehicles can help clear Beijing’s smoggy skies. Yet he seems profoundly uninterested in politics, or at least not hopeful that individuals can change the system.

The date June 4 doesn’t register for much of the Chinese public the way red-letter dates such as September 11 register in the U.S. That’s not to say that no one remembers, but China’s heightened security ensured that no protestors or would-be vigil observers entered Tiananmen Square today.

In recent weeks, many people whom the government feared might attempt to mark the anniversary were detained. Among them is Guo Jian, a 52-year-old, China-born, Australian artist and 1989 Tiananmen Square protester. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Guo was taken from his home on the outskirts of Beijing on Sunday night. Just a few days earlier, he had crumbled 160 kilograms of minced pork onto a diorama of Tiananmen Square. He explained to the Financial Times: “I wanted to do something privately to mark the anniversary.”

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