A Date To Forget6 min read

Doubling down on the Tiananmen taboo – Louisa Lim


To write my book The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, I spent a lot of time in fast-food restaurants. Not because I like burgers, but because dissidents often favour the crush of diners and the buzz of conversation, believing it complicates surveillance. As I sat in McDonald’s with Bao Tong – who spent seven years in jail as the highest government official to be sentenced post-Tiananmen – he could point out which plainclothes policemen were shadowing him. When I visited Zhang Xianling – who co-founded The Tiananmen Mothers, a group of relatives of those who died when the government troops crushed the democracy movement in Beijing on 4 June 1989 – her first words were: “They knew you were coming.” The police had already phoned her to ask the purpose of my visit, knowledge presumably gleaned from tapping her, or my, phone. The surveillance was explicit by design: an act of intimidation aimed at multiple audiences.

My job, as a foreign correspondent for US radio station NPR, gave me reason to visit such interviewees, but even I became so paranoid that I kept my book a secret from my own children for months. I wrote, nervily, on a computer that had never been online, which I kept locked in a safe in my bedroom.

Today I would not be able to write the same book. Back in 2013 I did a crude survey on four Beijing university campuses, asking 100 students if they could identity the famous shot of Tank Man, the young white-shirted man facing down a column of tanks on the Avenue of Everlasting Peace. Of 100 students, only 15 knew where the photo had been taken. When a French camera crew repeated this exercise on a Beijing street a year later, it took only 10 minutes for the police to arrive. The journalists were interrogated for six hours. Nowadays it is hard to find anyone willing to speak to the foreign media on pretty much any topic, let alone one of the most politically sensitive episodes in China’s recent history.

Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping – nicknamed the Chairman of Everything – even the past must be locked down. He spelled out why as he described the temporally all-encompassing nature of his key slogan, “The Chinese Dream is a dream about history, the present and the future.” His dream of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” depends on the correct understanding of history, which is being imposed in an increasingly coercive fashion. To this end, new legislation passed last year introducing  “historical nihilism” into the civil code ensures any independent questioning of official history bears increased risk, as well as potential financial costs. Nowadays, “encroaching upon the name, portrait, reputation and honour of heroes and martyrs” is a civil offence.

In their moves to suppress historical inquiry, China’s 21st century rulers are following the path laid down by the country’s first emperor, Qin Shihuang. In 213 BC he ordered all histories burned, except the official Qin records, in so thorough an act of intellectual destruction that even records of his own ancestry were destroyed. The aim, according to historian Sima Qian, writing more than 100 years later, was “to make the common people ignorant and to see to it that no one in the empire used the past to criticise the present”. To underline that, in 210 BC the emperor is said to have buried a group of Confucian scholars alive for voicing criticism.

Today’s equivalent of a live burial is a long prison sentence. Last year, activist Chen Yunfei was jailed for four years for “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble”. His main offence? Visiting the grave of a Tiananmen victim. Four men who printed Tank Man labels for liquor bottles face long sentences for “inciting subversion of state power”. Such sentences indicate that Tiananmen is becoming more – not less – sensitive over time.

In his 14th elegy to June Fourth, recently deceased Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo wrote of “memory, severed by an eloquent depravity of speech”:

  For too long that secret

 premeditated act has been repressed

 locked within a magnificent lie.

Over the years, powerful figures like Alibaba’s Jack Ma and Donald Trump, before he was US president, have voiced sympathy for China’s brutal crackdown. Meanwhile, Beijing’s success in amplifying its own version of history is writ large in absence: the fact that people died during the 1989 crackdown in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, as well as in Beijing, was hardly written about until I uncovered details for my book (an arduous process, which involved relying on sources held outside China). As for those few Chinese accounts about the events in Beijing, they often contain verifiable falsehoods, even in university textbooks.

China’s government archives are notoriously difficult to access, and getting more so. One picture posted recently by Harvard historian Michael Szonyi of the post-1949 Sichuan provincial archives summed it up: beside a sign reading “Open Catalogue” is a row of completely bare shelves. Nothing is open. Recent research by Hoover Institution historian Glenn Tiffert indicates that Beijing is systematically censoring its electronic archive of Chinese academic journals to rectify sensitive periods of the past. This paucity of material – combined with fear of ending up on a visa blacklist – mean Western scholars often shy away from sensitive topics like 1989.

As Tiananmen’s victims such as Zhang Xianling and Bao Tong age and die, we risk losing the people’s history of 1989. The memory of what happened now resides behind locked doors and under police guard, in fractious communities of squabbling exiles, on the dusty shelves of university libraries and – for now at least – in the annual vigils held in Hong Kong. My aim was to try to fill some of those gaps, however imperfectly, before it was too late. Just four years later, it may already be too late.

Tiananmen matters, and to China’s leaders it matters enough to mobilise the machinery of state to snuff out the tiniest commemoration. That enforced forgetting seems to be spreading to Hong Kong, with a new history curriculum for school students omitting the 1989 killings altogether. Though officials say there are no political considerations, it is no coincidence that Hong Kong hosts the largest annual vigil to remember 1989 on Chinese soil.

Not knowing about Tiananmen also matters. Enforced ignorance has its own cost, best summed up in the words of one eloquent Chinese student, who attended a talk I gave at a US university. Addressing the room, she said: “I spent 18 years of my life in China and I realise now that I know nothing about my own country’s history. I went to the best schools, the most well-regulated schools. And I know absolutely nothing about anything.” ∎

A version of this article originally appeared in the 2018 spring issue of Index on Censorship magazine as part of a special report on the abuse of history. Click here for more information
Header: Hong Kong students commemorate an anniversary of the Tiananman massacre, from Wikimedia Commons