Encouraged to forget: Tiananmen Square 30 years on

Many died in China on June 4th, 1989. Collective amnesia engulfs the massacre

In the weeks before the June 4th, 1989, massacre there was a festive mood in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, with throngs of students partying amid a sea of flags, banners and makeshift tents.

Rose Tang, then a 20-year-old college freshman, said the word "democracy" figured on nearly all the banners and slogans that people shouted. This was confusing to her and most of the other young protesters who had never heard the word "democracy" by itself, detached from expressions like "proletarian democratic dictatorship" from their textbooks.

“What is democracy?” Tang asked around. No one could answer.

Donated Cokes and cakes were handed out and the sloganeering continued. "It was a free party. Standing in the blazing sun was no fun, though," Tang said. "I lost my voice from shouting: 'We want democracy. Down with corruption! Down with [then premier] Li Peng! '"


They were heady days and the students sang songs and gave speeches, and rock bands performed impromptu concerts in the square in displays of solidarity.

As the 30th anniversary looms, Tang now reflects on the tragedy that unfolded then before her eyes. On the night of June 3rd, word went around Beijing that the military was moving in on the square to remove the students.

“It’s time to become a revolutionary hero!” Tang thought, evoking the heroic tales from her textbooks of communist martyrs who were killed in the civil war, or by the invading Japanese. For camouflage, she donned black jeans and a black jacket, and put an ornate pocket knife she had been given as a gift in her jeans pocket. She looked ready for battle, and was especially proud of her new hairstyle, with the back of her head shaved to create an image of Marilyn Monroe’s lips.

She wrote a short letter to her boyfriend and gave it to her roommate, asking her to pass it on if she didn’t return. With an empty beer bottle in each hand, she said she “felt like a warrior clutching hand grenades”.

Hearing sounds of firecrackers exploding in the distance, the students cheered, saying it was like the Chinese New Year festival. But soon bullets whizzed overhead.

“Must be rubber bullets, they would not dare kill us!” Tang and her friends said.

‘Thundering tanks’

Then sparks started bouncing off the Monument to the People’s Heroes. The square was suddenly flooded with light, and there was a “deafening noise of tanks thundering towards us from three directions, like green monsters”.

Soldiers started bludgeoning the students with batons. Rushing to get out of the square, Tang said she fell a few times and her glassed were smashed.

“I trampled over a few bodies, not knowing if they were dead or alive. I was dragged along by the mob . . . I tumbled to the ground. A soldier kicked me and wielded his stick but the stick just grazed my head.”

A line of tanks were fencing them in. “I climbed up on one tank and crawled over the tread. The tank’s turret lid was open. A soldier was aiming his gun at the crowd. He did not turn his head as I crawled past him and jumped off the other side.”

That crackdown ended months of student-led demonstrations, and it is estimated that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people died that night in Beijing and other cities across the country. The government has never produced a final toll.

A few days later, Tang got word that her friend, 19-year-old Wang Qiong, had perished in a hail of bullets. She went to the morgue to see his body but in the chaos it wasn't to be found, nor did his name appear on any of the official lists of the dead Tang later saw.

In the hospital a man showed her a tiny piece of metal. “They took it out of my thigh,” he said. “The doctors couldn’t find any whole bullets. The troops must have used shrapnel.”

A few days later Tang returned to the square in the hope of finding her bicycle. Trucks were spraying water on the streets. “All I could see was the clean wet concrete ground glittering in street lights,” she said. The songs, the screams, the roaring tanks, the loud speakers: where have they gone? All I could hear was the sound of sprinkling water. More than 40 days of joy, tears and blood had been washed away.”

For a short time, the square had been a “mini-utopia where everyone was a participant and had a say – everyone had a sense of responsibility for the community that was the square”, Tang, who now lives in New York, said.

“Tiananmen was a big party against the Party. China’s Woodstock, without mud but with plenty of blood.”

She was able to slip back to her campus and managed to avoid any official repercussions for her involvement. Many of the other student leaders, however, were jailed or exiled. The government dubbed the movement a “counterrevolutionary riot” and has strictly censored any attempt to discuss it to this day. When the universities opened again in September that year, every student was given the compulsory assignment of writing a 3,000-word essay where they had to confess their actions, criticise their own behaviour and vow to stand by the party.

Threats sidelined

The Chinese Communist Party uses its version of history to establish that it is the only entity fit to govern China, activists say, and anyone found to be "falsifying the history of the Communist Party" faces dire repercussions.

Every year in the run-up to June 4th, activists, relatives of the victims, lawyers, and anyone else who might be perceived to be a potential threat are sidelined. Some are detained or placed under house arrest, others threatened or moved out of the cities till the sensitive time passes. Hundreds of thousands of cyber police erase any online reference to the anniversary, and this year popular livestreaming sites have gone offline temporarily. Even candle emojis are now taboo and automatically deleted. High-tech surveillance technology, including facial recognition and artificial intelligence software, further tighten the web.

The square itself is lined with surveillance cameras and teems with uniformed and plain-clothed security officials, and at every approach there are heavily guarded checkpoints. Tourists still flock into the square, which is a major attraction, after they have passed through the ID and security check.

When The Irish Times visited the area last week, however, a policeman checking passports refused access, saying that foreign journalists registered in China were forbidden from entering the square, “unless they had the appropriate documentation from the relevant authorities” – an intentionally vague instruction often deployed here to fob unwanted people off.

The official glare shines all across the country. Last month a court in Chengdu in Sichuan province sentenced four men to prison terms of up to 3½ years following a secret trial for "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble" after they produced some bottles of alcohol that referenced the tragedy on the labels. The bottles, which were for personal distribution, carried the words "June 4th, 1989" and the slogan, "Never Forget, Never Give Up", along with a cartoon of a man standing in front of a line of advancing tanks.

As the slogan suggests, people are in fact encouraged to forget. In her book, The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, former BBC and NPR journalist Louisa Lim says that, "Chinese people are practised at not dwelling on the past. One by one, episodes of political turmoil have been expunged from official history or simply forgotten."

She said the Communist Party has rewritten its history, “but it has not forgotten what it did in 1989, nor is at peace with it. That much is clear from the mounting list of those punished for acts of remembrance.”

The “forgetting” that has engulfed China is not just enforced from above, Lim writes. “The people themselves have colluded in this amnesia and embraced it. Forgetting is a survival mechanism, almost second nature.”

‘Based on lies’

Parents shield their children from the past for it contains knowledge that could jeopardise their bright futures, she said. “There is no benefit to remembering, so why bother?”

But in a country that has done more to alleviate poverty than any other country in the history of the world, does it really matter? she asks.

The answer, she argues, is that it does. “It matters because the national identity of this new world power is based on lies. When those lies are taught in schools, passed unchallenged from one generation to the next, and truth-telling is punished, a moral vacuum gapes ever larger, the debt grows greater, and the cost paid is the dearest of all: a loss of humanity.”

Writing on the same topic recently, Jeffrey A Bader, who was working in the US state department's office of Chinese affairs at the time of the crackdown, said that the governments of many countries committed atrocities in the 20th century, "and few have performed adequate penance, but almost all – Germany, Japan, the United States, Rwanda, South Africa, Argentina, Israel, to name a few – have engaged in examination and reflection," he wrote for the Brookings Institution, where he is now a senior fellow.

“In China, that has not happened with regard to June 4th. China’s rise in itself causes anxieties among foreigners, but a rise devoid of self-reflection, honesty about its history, and rectification of a grievous past event heightens concerns.”

Tang also argues that it absolutely matters, saying that the international community has to call China to account for its human rights abuses – abuses committed then and now. She points to Xinjiang, for instance, where more than a million ethnic minorities are being held in Beijing-run camps; or Tibet, where more than 160 Tibetans have self-immolated in recent years, protesting against Chinese rule and policies.

“These are being neglected by the world and are met with silence,” she said, adding that “Western governments should stop kowtowing to the Chinese government for business and trade opportunities.”

Looking back at European history, and at a current shift to the political right in some countries around the world, she believes it is imperative we remember atrocities if we are to avoid similar situations in the future. “In other words, it’s absolutely vital to remember Tiananmen because the Tiananmen massacre could happen to any people, anywhere, any time.” Tang was named the Champion for Freedom of Speech by the Visual Artists Guild.

In Beijing, despite the censorship and efforts to develop a counter narrative, she is confident the events of 1989 will not evaporate into the ether.

“They may have washed the blood stains off and patched the bullet holes, but they cannot erase the past.”