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student leader
Wang Dan in 1989
The Tiananmen Square massacre was followed by a period of repression marked by mass arrests and executions. There was seven months of martial law in Beijing during and following Tiananmen Square. Thousands were jailed, harassed and threatened. Some were executed, shot in the back of the neck, and photographs of the bodies were posted all over the country as warnings. One girl leapt from a 12th story window because she was "depressed in the atmosphere of recrimination."

While foreign governments expressed horror over the massacre the Beijing government eliminated remaining sources of organized opposition required political reeducation not only for students but also for large numbers of party cadre and government officials. The Chinese government's official line is that the demonstrations were a "counter-revolutionary riot" which had to be crushed for China's greater good. Despite repeated calls, the authorities have never sanctioned an independent investigation into the events of 1989. Wu Renhua, author three books on Tiananmen Square, told China Change: In Beijing, many workers and urban residents continued to protest after June Fourth, as did people in other cities around the country. Many of those protesters paid a high price. After June Fourth, the Communist authorities carried out a large-scale campaign of investigations and arrests. This is another important part of the history of June Fourth. [Source: Yaxue Cao, China Change, June 3, 2016 ++]

According to the Columbia Encyclopedia: The incident brought on international economic sanctions, which sent China's economy into decline. International trade gradually resumed during the course of the next year, and in June, 1990, after China released several hundred dissidents, the United States renewed China's most-favored-nation trade status. According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations”: Economic reforms were stopped and some private enterprises closed down. from 1988–93, there were an estimated 250,000 worker strikes and disputes. In 1993 and 1994, there were peasant protests and riots over local corruption. In addition, there were workers’ disputes and strikes in response to low pay and poor working conditions. Following the resurgence of conservatives in the aftermath of June 4, economic reform slowed until given new impetus by Deng Xiaoping's dramatic visit to southern China in early 1992. Deng's renewed push for a market-oriented economy received official sanction at the 14th Party Congress later in the year as a number of younger, reform-minded leaders began their rise to top positions. But dissent continued. A labor protest in Nanchong in 1997 involved 20,000 workers, making it the largest such protest since the communist revolution. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007; [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press]

A few months after Tiananmen Square the Berlin Wall, the symbol of the Cold War for a generation, fell, followed two years later by the demise of communism in the Soviet Union and its satellite states. On December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union was disbanded. After Tiananmen Square, freshman at several universities in Beijing and Shanghai were sent away for Cultural-Revolution-like re-education and universities offered ideology classes that taught the governments version of the events. Eulogies for senior party members usually included a praise for their "clear stand" on Tiananmen. Jiang Zemin became China's president in 1993. After Deng's death, under Jiang's orders, Chinese television showed a 12 hour documentary on Deng's life that included footage of Deng and the Tiananmen Square crackdown. The segment was shown over and over.

"People’s Democracy Enjoyed by the Majority of the People"

Wang Dang at the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Democracy Movement of 1989 was a sharp wake-up call for the Communist Party leadership. They had never expected the incident to get so seriously out of hand. One of the lessons that the Party leadership drew from the events of that spring was that they needed to do far more to teach the people, and particularly the young people, about patriotism and loyalty to the Party and the government. To begin with, they needed to refute the ideas about democracy that the students, workers, and other protestors had been discussing. The editorial below was published in the Party newspaper, People’s Daily, in March 1990, as a part of that project of education (or indoctrination). [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

A March 1990 People’s Daily article entitled “Bourgeois and Socialist Democracies Compared” read: The socialist democracy means the democratic rights enjoyed by the broad masses of the workers, peasants, intellectuals, and all the people who love their socialist motherland. The nature of the socialist democracy is that people act as the masters of their country. The socialist state system is the state system under which laborers and citizens are allowed to manage the state, administer the society, and act as the masters of their country in the history of mankind for the first time. It is because of this reason that the socialist country is the most advanced democratic country in the history of mankind. “The proletarian democracy is a million times more democratic than any types of bourgeois democracy.” (Selected Works of Lenin Volume 3, page 634). [Source: “Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook”, edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, 2nd ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 501-503]

“During the period when turmoil and the counterrevolutionary rebellion broke out in Beijing, a handful of people who stubbornly adhered to the stand of bourgeois liberalization flaunted the banner of “Striving for Democracy” in an attempt to confuse and poison people’s minds. These people denounce our country as a despotic state in which there is no democracy to speak of. This is an out.and.out distortion of the realities in our country. What is true is that since the founding of the New.China, the CPC and the People’s Government have made unremitting efforts to build the socialist democracy in China. Although China’s socialist democratic system is still far from perfect, China has after all established a comprehensive democratic system under which people can participate in the administration and management of the state.

Impact of Tiananmen Square: Lingering Idealism and Violence-Backed Policy

In a review of “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited” by Louisa Lim, Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Review of Books, “One of Lim’s most important points is that Tiananmen made violence acceptable in today’s reform era.” Over the decades the Chinese economy has grown at a remarkable rate, bringing real prosperity and better lives to hundreds of millions.” But behind it was this stick, the message that the government was prepared to massacre parts of the population if they got out of line. When I returned to China as a journalist in the early 1990s, the Tiananmen events had become a theater played out every spring. As the date approached, dissidents across China would be rounded up, security in Beijing doubled, and censorship tightened. It was one of the many sensitive dates on the Communist calendar, quasi-taboo days that reflected a primal fear by the bureaucracy running the country.” [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, June 5, 2014 ==]

After the violence of the Mao era, people had hoped that social controversies wouldn’t be solved by force—that there would be no more Red Guards ransacking homes of real and imagined enemies, or mass use of labor camps. And while many of these more drastic forms of violence have been curbed, the Party regularly uses force against its opponents, illegally searching and detaining critics. Street protests haven’t ended. Although the state talks continually of social harmony and reportedly spends more on “stability maintenance” than on its armed forces, China is beset by tens of thousands of small-scale protests each year, “little Tiananmens,” as Bao tells her. Some are innocuous protests by retired workers seeking pensions, but others are by people trying to defend their homes from being taken away, and they are punished by violent attacks by government thugs or by lynchings carried out by the notorious chengguan street police. ==

“Living in today’s China, one realizes that amnesia is pervasive and exile all too common, but so too is the idea that the Tiananmen events still have meaning— that they continue to have a presence, not only in the negative sense of causing repression and censorship, but in more positive ways too. I was reminded of the New York Times correspondents Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, who titled their 1990s best-selling book about that era China Wakes. Today, such a book would probably be about GDP, peasant migration, and aircraft carriers, but their genius was to include Tiananmen too, not merely as a background to economic growth—including the theory of the economic takeoff as, in effect, compensation for political repression—but as part of a broader awakening among the Chinese people, even if the political aspects of that awakening have been eclipsed by the economic development of the past quarter-century. ==

“If this sounds naive, consider that almost exactly a decade after Tiananmen, ten thousand protesters quietly surrounded the Communist Party’s Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing, asking that their spiritual practice, Falun Gong, be legalized. Had they missed the government’s brutal message, or were they on some subconscious level emboldened by a rising consciousness among ordinary people—a sense that they had rights too? ==

“The Falun Gong protesters met with intense repression, including torture, and most people are now more circumspect in pushing for change. But in talking to intellectuals, activists, teachers, pastors, preachers, and environmentalists over the past years, I’ve found that almost all say that Tiananmen was a defining point in their lives, a moment when they woke up and realized that society should be improved. It can’t be a coincidence, for example, that many major Protestant leaders in China talk of Tiananmen in these terms, or that thousands of former students—not the famous leaders in exile or in prison, but the ones who filled the squares and streets of Chinese cities twenty-five years ago—are quietly working for legal rights and advocating environmental causes. ==

Book:“The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited” by Louisa Lim, Oxford University Press, 2014.

Economic Growth and Entrepreneurship After Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen 20th anniversary protest in Hong Kong

Tim Daiss wrote in Forbes: “In place of the desire for greater democratic freedom, Beijing has spun a new narrative, one that has been extremely successful at keeping most, not all, of its masses happy – economic progress. Economic progress backed by a heightened sense of nationalism will keep the party in power in Beijing mostly unchallenged. However, it’s a fair question to ask: What happens to that sense of peace and serenity if economic conditions spiral out of control? What happens if a new generation of students, unable to experience China’s economic miracle or simply desiring something else, start to ask questions and in time protest? The events of May and early June 1989 give us a pretty good answer to those questions.[Source: Tim Daiss, Forbes, May 15, 2016]

Scott Savitt, a journalist in China in the 1980s and 90s, told the LA Review of Books Blog: “I feel like my story is a microcosm of Beijing in the 1980s and 90s. Starting a business — xiahai in Chinese [literally “jumping into the sea,” common vernacular for entrepreneurial activity in the 1980s and 1990s] — after June 4, and that’s what everyone was doing. The Chinese are an entrepreneurial people. But there was a different reason behind that post-1989. The unstated contract with the Communist Party was: We’ll give you economic liberty, but not political liberty. That’s what everyone acted on. That’s where so much of the corruption comes from. If you don’t free up the political system, but free up the economic system, well guess what: Markets, political as well as economic, are going to create themselves. And that’s where things remain. Everything in China got a lot more cynical. The money culture didn’t come naturally to people. It was simply all that was allowed. Of course making money is what smart people are going to do, in that case. If it were an open society, you would have had a lot more of those people doing other things, being socially engaged, but when you only give them one channel… [Source: Matthew Robertson LA Review of Books Blog, May 31, 2017, Interview with Scott Savitt]

In his biography of Deng, Ezra Vogel, an emeritus professor of social sciences at Harvard, wrote: “What we do know is that in the two decades after Tiananmen, China enjoyed relative stability and rapid—even spectacular—economic growth. Today hundreds of millions of Chinese are living far more comfortable lives than they were living in 1989, and they enjoy far greater access to information and ideas around the world than at any time in Chinese history. Both educational level and longevity have continued to rise rapidly. For these reasons and others, Chinese people take far greater pride in their nation’s achievements than they did in the previous century.”

Fang Lizhi wrote in the New York Review of Books, “With these words Vogel indicates that he basically accepts an argument that the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department has been making for the past twenty years: that ‘stability’ and economic growth show that the repression at Tiananmen was justified in the long run. When foreign dignitaries or journalists have asked about the massacre, the response of Party leaders has been consistent: if Deng Xiaoping had not taken “resolute” (i.e., murderous) measures, China could not have had the stable society or flourishing economy that it enjoyed in the ensuing years. [Source: Fang Lizhi, New York Review of Books, November 10, 2011, in a review of "Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China" by Ezra F. Vogel]

Communist Party Prospers After Tiananmen Square

John Delury, associate director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations, wrote: “Amazingly the party emerged from the crisis unified around Deng Xiaoping’s vision of a ‘socialist market economy’ and regained legitimacy with the urban population through implementing that vision.”

Down the road Tiananmen Square also provided as opportunity to purge hardliners that stood in the way of reforms. After the massacre “Deng temporarily withdrew, letting the central planner around the party elder Chen Yun slow down marketization and weather China’s international isolation in Tiananmen’s wake” and then undermined their authority in 1992 with his famous Southern Tour. Delury wrote: “In the cold eyes of history, the 1989 movement and its aftermath may eventually be seen as the Chinese Communist Party’s “Machiavellian moment,” when Deng confronted the mortality of the republic, and saw what it would take to survive: party unity based on urban growth and used Tiananmen Square and the Southern Tour to achieve that goal.

John Pomfret of the Washington Post wrote: “Tiananmen saved the party from collapse” by prompting “the party to launch a far-reaching investigation into how some political parties succeeded in staying in power and why others failed, As a result of that study, it replaced thousands of party hacks with technocrats and college graduates. It opened the door to business owners who decades ago would have been jailed for walking “the capitalist road.”

Zhao Ziyang After Tiananmen Square

The Communist Party made Zhao a scapegoat for Tiananmen Square. He was relieved of his position as Secretary General of the Communist Party in 1992 for showing "serious mistakes of judgement and splitting the party" for his role in the 1989 demonstrations.

Zhao was placed under informal house arrest. He lived in a spacious Beijing villa that was locked from the outside. In the 1990s, he released a letter calling the Communist leaders to declare Tiananmen Square a mistake. For the most part he spent his time quietly reading, with occasional trips to the golf course and the provinces. He spent a lot time hitting golf balls in his backyard, he was occasionally let out to play pool at a club used by the Communist Party elite but before he arrived everyone was cleared out so he was forced to play alone.

Zhao died on January 17, 2005. His death was given a lot of press in the West but did not draw much attention in China, where no announcement of his death was made on television. There was a debate within the Communist Party and between the government and Zhao’s family as to what kind of accolades he should receive if any.

Replica of the Goddess of Deomocracy in Hong Kong

When Zhao died in 2005 the Chinese government formed an “Emergency Response Leadership Small Group,” declared a “period of extreme sensitivity,” and ordered the Ministry of Railways to screen all travelers heading to Beijing.In the end Zhao was given a “body-farewell funeral" (lower status than a state funeral) and was buried with other Communist leaders in Babashan Cemetery and was given credit for “valuable contributions” to China’s economic reform but criticized for making ‘serious mistakes’ during the Tiananmen square protests. Measures were taken to prevent any demonstrations and show of support for Zhao or his political reforms. No serious demonstrations materialized.

On the 10th anniversary of Zhao Ziyang’s death, Sui-Lee Wee of Reuters reported: “Chinese liberals have clung to Zhao as a symbol of democratic change in a country whose leaders have rejected a reassessment of the 1989 protests. The ruling Chinese Communist Party has stamped out his legacy. At the heart of that anxiety is a wariness of Zhao's enduring influence and the divisions that remain over political reform in China. "If he can be vindicated, then our country will be able to go on the path of democracy," said Ruan Jizhong, who travels from central Hubei province to Zhao's home every January 17. "Everyone thinks this way. It's just that they don't dare to speak up." [Source: Sui-Lee Wee, Reuters, January 17, 2015]

Zhao's family was not allowed to bury him until October 2019. He was buried at a Beijing cemetery on the outskirts of the city not Baobashan Cemetery where revolutionary heroes and Communist Party luminaries are buried. In 2020, people were not allowed to visit Zhao's grave and a security detail was posted there, but they were allowed to visit the grave of Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong much reviled wife and Gang of Four leader. At the time of Zhao's burial AFP reported: “Zhao, who is a revered figure among Chinese human rights defenders, is still a sensitive topic in the country, where commemorations of his death are held under tight surveillance or prevented altogether. Zhao's opposition to use deadly military force to crack down on democracy protests on Tiananmen Square came at a high cost — the former premier and Communist Party general secretary was sacked and forced to lived under house arrest for 16 years until his death. Besides opposing Deng Xiaoping's imposition of martial law in 1989, when hundreds of unarmed civilians were killed on June 4, Zhao was respected for carrying out economic reforms in the 1980s that created opportunities for many people. But despite his contributions to the economy, Zhao was not given a proper funeral as is generally afforded former leaders, and instead has been continually blamed for siding with the students. [Source: AFP, October 19, 2019]

Book: Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang (Simon and Schuster, 2009) is based on 30 audiotapes secretly recorded in 1999 and 2000 and published in the United States on the eve of the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square. Much of what is described in Zhao’s book was already been revealed by the "Tiananmen Papers" book but what Zhao’s book does do is offer an insiders look into what happened, with Zhao not being shy about naming names. Zhao made the recordings on Peking opera and kid’s tapes lying around his house. Not even close family members were aware of them.

Wu Renhua, Tiananmen Square Historian

Yaxue Cao wrote in China Change: “In 1989, Mr. Wu Renhua was a young faculty member at China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, leading the student demonstration along with other young scholars. He participated in the Tiananmen Movement “from the first day to the last,” and was among the last few thousand protesters who left Tiananmen Square in the early morning of June 4. On the way back to his college, he witnessed PLA tanks charging into a file of students at Liubukou, a large intersection, killing 11 and injuring many. In February, 1990, Wu swam four hours from Zhuhai to Macau, and onto Hong Kong, and arrived later that year in the United States. Over the next 15 years he was the editor of Press Freedom Herald, a Chinese-language paper founded on June 9, 1989, by a group of overseas Chinese, to bring news of pro-democracy activities to China. Given Mr. Wu’s training as a historiographer, he began his research of 1989 as soon as the incident ended—but his writing didn’t start until in 2005, when the paper he edited folded. From 2005 to 2014,he published three books (none have been translated into English): “The Bloody Clearing of Tiananmen Square” (2007), “The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth” (2009), and “The Full Record of the Tiananmen Movement” (2014). [Source: Yaxue Cao, China Change, June 3, 2016 ++]

Wu Renhua told China Change: “I myself took part in the 1989 democracy movement. But it was also because I was a historiographer. From February 1978 to June 1986, I studied ancient Chinese historiography in the Chinese Department at Peking University, first as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student. After I graduated from Peking University in 1986, I went to work as a historiographer at the Chinese University of Political Science and Law. Given my academic background, as the events of 1989 were underway I had already begun to feel the need to create a record of this great moment that not only influenced China but also changed the world. That, after all, is the role of a historian.++

“Ever since the Chinese Communists took power, a lot of history has either been covered up or distorted. Those of us who deal with historical documents are much more concerned with the historical record. And the Tiananmen movement was the biggest public movement of citizens since the Communists took power, and the massacre was so tragic and shocking to the world. So after the massacre, I vowed to create a record of that period of history so that it would not be forgotten.++

Wu Renhua published three books (none have been translated into English): “The Bloody Clearing of Tiananmen Square” (2007), “The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth” (2009), and “The Full Record of the Tiananmen Movement” (2014). Together, the three books form a complete record of the 1989 democracy movement and the June Fourth Massacre.

Legacy of Tiananmen Square

June 4 Memorial Musuem

The Chinese government still calls the Tiananmen Square massacre a counter-revolutionary riot and the party line is that it preserved stability and paved the way for China’s economic success. Many scholars say Deng used it as opportunity to purge destabilizing reformers such as Zhao Ziyang from the party. Some scholars have speculated that if reformers in the party had sided with the protestors this could have to led to genuine reform-minded government and paved the way for multiparty elections.

The massacre sent a shutter through the Chinese intellectual community. "Although relatively few people died during the Tiananmen square protest," Jonathan Mirsky wrote in the New York Times, "or were executed afterwards, or were transported to China's gulag, the government crackdown traumatized writers, scientists and university teachers. (I remember the terrified atmosphere among my friends in Beijing in 1989). Most were interrogated, scolded or ordered to write confessions. As was true throughout the 1980s few informed against...others in order to curry favor."

On the calls for democracy at the protests in Tiananmen Square, one woman who was a university student in remote Gansu at the time told the Washington Post, “I was quite excited. I felt that my blood was boiling.” The protest “changed the orbit of my life.” She said she no longer believed what she read and was told and became “a person who doubts a lot things now.”

In an essay accompanying an image with Tiananmen Square with a raised middle finger, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei wrote that “the history of modern China is a history of negation, a denial of the value of humanity, a murder of individuality. It is a history without a soul.” In June, 2007, with the Olympics slightly more than a year away, Beijing allowed memorials for Tiananmen Square for the first time. People who lost love ones were allowed to place photos of those who died on the places where they died. Hong Kong is the only place where large public commemorations are allowed. Tens of thousands gathered there for a candle light vigil in 2007. Yu Hua, author of the novel "Brothers" wrote in the New York Times, “You might think May 35th is an imaginary date, but in China it’s a real one. Here, where references to June 4 “the date of the Tiananmen incident of 1989 “are banned from the Internet, people use "May 35th" to circumvent censorship and commemorate the events of that day. [Source: Yu Hua, New York Times, June 24, 2011]

On the “Tiananmen Massacre” Libya’s dictator Muammar Qaddafi said on February 22, 2011, at the height of the “Arab Spring”: “People in front of tanks were crushed. The unity of China was more important than those people on Tiananmen Square.” When Tiananmen Square happened, tanks were sent in to deal with them. It’s not a joke. I will do whatever it takes to make sure part of the country isn’t taken away.”

Sexual Problems and Shitty Jobs for Tiananmen Square Survivors

“Bullets and Opium: Real-Life Stories of China After the Tiananmen Square Massacre” by Liao Yiwu is a series of portraits of ordinary, working-class Chinese who defended Tiananmen Square and bore the brunt of the violence and had their lives ruined by long prison terms. Liao spent seven years researching the book and did prison time for writing the poem “Masscare” about Tiananmen Square.[Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, June 27, 2019]

Liao Yiwu wrote in “Bullets and Opium”:Almost no one I interviewed was willing to speak publicly about sex, but the damage there was deep, too. All over China, many of those arrested after the 1989 protests were teenage boys, virgins, like Wu Wenjian. On their release, they were middle-aged men dealing with erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation, and their recovery often took months or years. [Source: Isabella Steger, Quartz, May 7, 2019; Translated from the Chinese by David and Jessie Cowhig and Ross Perlin]

“Wu Wenjian told me his erectile dysfunction lasted at least two years. “I had been studying art, so not long after being released from prison I found a job at an ad agency. I traveled a lot for work, so I was staying in hotels and found myself in places full of sexy women. But I was scared that the police were following me and would catch me in the act if I tried anything. “My first kiss was a disaster. I managed to crack the skin on her lips. As soon as I put my arms around her, I came, and it was visible. I was nervous and extremely horny, but the hornier I got, the less I could get it up. It went on like that all night. The girl was patient, and she kept stroking me and comforting me, but I was on the verge of tears. I just wanted to slap myself in the face. She left and never came back.” That’s what happens when you’ve been sexually starved for a long time.

“Many people were afraid to talk to me at all, like a friend of Wu’s named Kun, who had sexual problems that were just a symptom of the wider malaise in his life. Wu tried to talk him into giving me an interview, but he declined: “If my boss finds out, I’ll be fired right away.” Kun told me a little of his employment history after getting out: “My first job involved standing outside big department stores, watching their customers’ bicycles. It paid next to nothing. Out on the street on snowy days, I stomped my feet so they wouldn’t freeze. Then my friends pulled some strings to get me the job I have now, working in a public bathhouse as a janitor. I clean toilets day and night, but at least it’s a stable income. Forget nightclubs. Now bathhouses are the new thing. Drinking, karaoke, mah-jongg, bathing, full-body massages, foot massages, back massages, hand jobs… We’ll satisfy the full range of the customer’s desires.

Tiananmen Square Mothers

Among those that attempt to keep the Tiananmen Square issue alive are relatives of the dead and one soldier who—Zhang Shijun—who has publically expressed regret for what happened. A group known as Tiananmen Mothers, made of family members of victims, has attempted to use tactics pioneered by the famous Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, to have the facts of the massacre revealed. The group new websites was shut down by the government in May 2008. Zhang, the soldier, posted an open letter on the Internet to President Hi Jintao in which recalls some of what he witnessed and has called for an investigation of into the incident.

Tiananmen Mothers was founded by Ding Jilin, whose 17-year-old son went out to check out what was happening and was found in a hospital mortuary, shot threw the heart with a bullet that entered his back.

Family members of the victims, taking advantage a new laws that allow ordinary citizens to sue, have sought damages and petitioned the government to do a criminal investigation of officials linked to the massacre. In April 2006, China ,made its first compensation payment over the Tiananmen square protest: $8,735 to the mother of student killed in the crackdown. The mother had campaigned for 17 years to gain redress for harm inflicted on her son while detained in Chengdu after being arrested by police there during the period of demonstration.

Young People Know Little About Tiananmen Square

In April 2013, Yan Lianke wrote in the New York Times: “In March 2012 I met Torbjorn Loden, the Swedish professor of Chinese language and culture, in Hong Kong. He told me that while briefly teaching at Hong Kong’s City University he asked the 40 students from China in his class what they knew about the June 4 Incident, the pro-democracy movement that ended in bloodshed in 1989, and if they were familiar with the names Liu Binyan and Fang Lizhi, two prominent democracy advocates of that era. All the students from China looked around at one another, mute and puzzled. [Source: Yan Lianke, New York Times, April 2, 2013. Yan Lianke is a Chinese writer based in Beijing. His translated works include “Serve the People,” “Dream of Ding Village,” about the blood-selling scandal in his home province of Henan, and “Lenin’s Kisses"]

Discussion of Tiananmen Square remain taboo in China. There is no mention of it in school textbooks or in the media. The names of the victims, who were denounced as “counter-revolutionaries,” were never published. Parents of the dead are forbidden from mourning them in in public. During anniversaries of the massacre security is expanded in Tiananmen square, foreign journalist are barred from entering and blogs, forums, bulletin boards that broach the subject and social media sites such as Twitter and Flickr are shut down.

Those that know about it often take the party line. One graduate student in environmental science told The New Yorker, “June 4th could not and should not succeed at the time. If June 4th had succeeded, China would be worse and worse, not better.” A student at Fudan University in Shanghai said, the students at Tiananmen Square “fought for China to make the country better. And there were some fault of the government. But, finally, we must admit that Chinese government had to use any way it could to put down the event.”

Censorship, the Internet and Tiananmen Square Amnesia

On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, Joe McDonald of Associated Press wrote: Remember June 4, Shi Shusi asked the 1.5 million readers of his popular microblog last year. Moments later, his postings were erased. A note from the microblog operator said they were "inappropriate publicity." This year, a discouraged Shi hasn't posted anything about the anniversary of the 1989 crackdown that crushed pro-democracy protests at a cost of hundreds of lives. "Major media treat it as if it never happened," said Shi. "Fewer and fewer young people get to know this issue. There is no opportunity to discuss it nowadays." [Source: Joe McDonald, Associated Press, June 1, 2014 ^=^]

“Communist leaders have spent 25 years making sure of that. Far from easing off as China went through three changes of ruling party leadership and a revolution in social media, a relentless campaign aimed at erasing public memory of the most tumultuous event of the past three decades has been steadily updated and tightened. "June 4th is especially sensitive not only because of potential criticism for the government but because people can use it as a jumping-off point to bring people together," said Jason Q. Ng, a researcher at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab who follows Chinese efforts to censor Internet content. "That is even more terrifying to them," he said. ^=^

Leaders have “tried to evoke fear of a return to the chaos of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when radicals ravaged the country. State TV showed rowdy pro-democracy protesters and restrained soldiers. Spokespeople rejected reports of unarmed protesters being killed as anti-Chinese propaganda. "People just didn't buy that," said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian at the University of California, Irvine, who studies Chinese student protest movements. "They had to stop telling that story and say, 'Let's not talk about this at all.'" ^=^

“The Tiananmen crackdown "is absolutely crucial to understanding the way press censorship works today," said David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project at Hong Kong University. "The notion was that you have to control public opinion through media control to maintain social and political stability." Commentators who hoped the rise of satellite TV, the Internet and social media would loosen the party's monopoly on power were disappointed. As millions of Chinese went online and acquired smartphones, Beijing spent heavily to develop high-tech filters. ^=^

“Each year ahead of June 4, mobile phone users engage in a cat-and-mouse competition with telecom carriers as they try to find new code words to evoke the anniversary in messages — such as calling the date May 35th — while censors try to detect and block them. Censors added "Shanghai Composite Index" to the list of banned terms on June 4, 2012, after the country's stock market benchmark opened that day at 2,346.89 points — which could be read as the 23rd anniversary of June 4, 1989 — and ended down 64.89 points, which also looked like the date. ^=^

China Tries to Pay Off Tiananmen Families

Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian, “Chinese authorities have proposed an unofficial payoff to a family bereaved by the military crackdown that followed the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, according to a group representing the victims. In a statement released just before the 22nd anniversary of the deadly crackdown on 4 June, the Tiananmen Mothers said security forces had privately approached one of their members to discuss an individual payoff. But the member rejected the proposal discussed during two visits in February and April because it was secretive and made no mention of an investigation, apology or public accounting for what happened. [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian May 31, 2011]

"This year, the silence was finally broken. This should have been welcome. But what in fact does this belated response mean?" asked the 127 members of the group who signed the statement. "The visitors did not speak of making the truth public, carrying out judicial investigations, or providing an explanation for the case of each victim. Instead, they only raised the question of how much to pay, emphasising that this was meant for that individual case and not for the families in the group as a whole."

The group said they had documented the cases of 203 people who were shot, beaten or crushed to death by People's Liberation Army tanks in the wake of the 1989 protests. Many other victims remained unidentified, they said.

Given the government's stance, direct public compensation for victims' families is highly unlikely, but several senior cadres have called for a re-evaluation of the protests and a recognition that the students and workers were not involved in a counter-revolutionary plot. There have been reports of unofficial payoffs. In 2005, Tang Deying, the mother of a student killed in police custody in Chengdu soon after the 1989 protests ; was given 70,000 yuan (£6,850) in "hardship assistance" by local officials, according to a local activist, Huang Qi.

Learning About Tiananmen Square in China

One person posted anonymously on China File: My first encounter with the Tiananmen Square massacre took place on a late afternoon in the late 1990s. I was in about sixth grade at the time. I came home quite late one day. When I opened the door, I found the house was dark with only a flicker of light coming from my parents’ bedroom. I went in and found my parents, my grandparents (my mom’s parents), and my cousin’s family. They were all crammed into this small bedroom and were watching something on a VCD on a small TV, even though we had a more comfortable sofa and a larger TV in the living room. It was dead quiet in the bedroom, so I just found a place to sit near a nightstand. [Source: China File, June 3, 2019]

“I did not know what was playing on the TV at the time. No one talked to me during the screening or explained what was going on, so I just sat and watched. It turned out to be a documentary on the Tiananmen Square massacre. I later found out my parents had borrowed the VCD from a friend. The documentary detailed everything that took place before, during, and after June 4, 1989, from the death of Hu Yaobang to the student leaders petitioning outside the Great Hall of the People, intercut with interviews of student leaders like Chai Ling, Wang Dan, and Wu’erkaixi.

“Being naive and clueless, I didn’t think or feel much about what was happening on the screen. I was just captivated by the storytelling. After the movie, again, no one spoke about what they had just watched, to me or to one another. My mom only told me not to tell anyone outside our household what we had watched. However, I could feel the sorrow and anger in her and her father. I can still remember their despair to this day.

“I didn’t think too much about the film until several years later, when my parents sent me to study abroad in high school. For the first time in my life, I had lots of free time and was able to access any information I found interesting. I started to gain an interest in taboo subjects about China, first from reading random posts on Chinese forums. Looking back, there was more freedom and less censorship in cyberspace in China in the early 2000s. As the years went by, I kept reading and finding out more about the truth the Chinese government wants to bury and hide, about Tiananmen and everything else. Especially when my English got good enough that I was able to read original English sources, I spent years trying to un-brainwash myself, to get rid of all the lies that the Chinese Communist Party’s government put in my head. It was a quite painful experience, and to this day I still can’t block out the patriotic songs that occasionally play in my head unbidden.

Another person wrote: “I was born in a remote rural area of Shandong province. On June 4, 1989, I was four. The first time I learned about “June Fourth,” it was not called “June Fourth,” but rather the “Tiananmen disturbance.” I read about it in my history textbook in middle school. At the time, I didn’t know much about it, and there weren’t many resources in the village, so we didn’t really discuss it.

“Not until I entered college did I begin to think more deeply about June Fourth. I had a teacher who was excellent at the job and also a very decent person, but one thing I found strange was that his title had always been “lecturer.” Normally, someone his age and with his knowledge would have been a professor or an associate professor. That puzzled me. Later, my friends told me that it was because the teacher was an activist during June Fourth. He participated in it, and was probably even a leader. That was when I realized that June Fourth was something that could actually affect people around me. It would affect his work and his future opportunities. I was a history major, but I couldn’t find any books about June Fourth.

“In 2014, I went to study in Hong Kong. The first thing I did when I landed there was open YouTube and search for “June Fourth.” I found a documentary on it, and I didn’t agree with everything in it, but I remember thinking, “Wow, now my eyes are open.” I immediately told my friends in mainland China what I had just learned. I also started to write an article on my online personal blog, trying to explain what really had happened on June 4. But, I found that I wasn’t able to post it. I thought I was a nobody, and I never expected an article I wrote to be blocked just because of two sensitive phrases: “June Fourth” and “Tiananmen incident.” I realized the power of government control was so strong it would even notice a nobody like me.

Image Sources: AP, China.org

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2021

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