On June 4, 1989, the pro-democracy student protests at Tiananmen Square, Beijing, came to a tragic end. Twenty-five years later, the memories are fast fading in China today.
Lies written in ink cannot hide facts written in blood.
- Chinese writer Lu Xun, writing about the suppression of protests in Tiananmen Square in 1926.
A few years ago, I made the journey to the sprawling campus of Peking University, in northwestern Beijing, to dine with students of China’s most famed educational institution. Its expansive grounds boast pristine forests, pagodas and even lakes. Since its founding in 1898, the university has played a unique role in its country’s cultural evolution. In the second decade of the 20th century, its students propelled the New Culture Movement, and subsequently led the marchers to Tiananmen Square for the transformative May 4, 1919, protests that swept the country and energised nationalists, opposing the government’s acceptance of the Treaty of Versailles that ceded parts of China to Japan. China’s great writer of the 20th century, Lu Xun, who spent time at “Bei Da”, wrote famously that the university had an indomitable spirit that could never be extinguished.
Seventy years after the May 4 movement, it was Bei Da’s students who drove forward the pro-democracy protests that convulsed China exactly 25 years ago this week, in the summer of 1989. The students ignited a nation, inspiring people across social divides, as they demanded free speech and an end to the rampant corruption of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC), then under Deng Xiaoping. Their protests, as the world knows, came to a tragic and brutal denouement on the night of June 3, as Deng declared martial law and sent in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to clear the square of protesters. Hundreds, if not thousands, were killed. Most deaths did not take place in the square, which had been vacated largely before the troops moved in. It was ordinary Beijingers in ordinary neighbourhoods who were shot and killed en masse as the troops fired at will and moved in to take control of the contested capital.
I travelled to Bei Da to dine with a small group of students, who were willing to share their thoughts on June 4, 1989. The subject of the protests is taboo in China today. They find no mention in textbooks, in the media or in public debates. There are many chapters in the history of the Communist Party of China (CPC) that it would rather forget: from Mao Zedong’s catastrophic Great Leap Forward in 1958 that resulted in famine claiming 30 million lives to the decade-long brutality of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) that shattered the lives of millions.
But it is the memory of 1989, which ironically had far fewer casualties, that appears to worry the Party the most. The CPC allows some amount of reflection on the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Any word on 1989, however, is not tolerated if it questions the CPC’s “conclusion” on the event, which describes the young students, who all saw themselves as patriots attempting to cleanse the country of corruption and authoritarianism, as “counterrevolutionaries” and “rioters”. Scholars or citizens who question that narrative are silenced. The CPC is so concerned about a public debate on 1989 that even private gatherings are disrupted: last month, a group of scholars who met to mark the anniversary in Beijing were rounded up and detained. But 25 years on, it appears that the CPC’s approach has been so effective that the Party might not have much reason to be concerned, at least judging from what I heard at Bei Da. Without exception, they appeared to buy into the party line. “China was in chaos, the party had no choice,” one student told me. These were not students who were clueless about what happened on the night of June 3. They all had software that allowed them to scale the “Great Firewall” of Internet restrictions, and watch on YouTube the videos showing bleeding students and tanks moving into Chang’an Avenue. Yet they found Deng’s reasoning understandable, if only because of the two decades of prosperity that have followed 1989. They were the generation that accepted Deng’s grand bargain: prosperity for silence. All the same, it was difficult to hear the words of young girl who told me, very calmly, “I would have done what Deng did”. Lu Xun was wrong: 1989 crushed the spirit of Bei Da.
It is possible that Tiananmen may be entirely forgotten by the current generation of young Chinese. Those who are fighting to preserve the truth — and the stories of those who lost their lives that night — are relegated to the fringes of Chinese society. The student leaders of 1989 are mostly in exile, in Taiwan or in the United States, their influence fading to near oblivion. “In all these years, and through all the energy and effort we expended, we have not been able to get justice for our loved ones, or slow the pace of old age or sickness among our fellow family members who shared in our common struggle over all these years,” said Ding Zilin of the “Tiananmen Mothers” group, who are fighting for their killed children. “What should we do for those who have passed away?” she asked last year.
Confronting the past has been traumatic and difficult even for those on the other side of the divide, like the former PLA soldier Chen Guang, who was among the troops on the streets of Beijing that night. “Many have risen to positions in the government because they participated in the ‘suppression of counterrevolutionary turmoil’, as the government calls it; some were promoted”, he told Louisa Lim, author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, which chronicles the stories of soldiers, students and ordinary citizens from 25 years ago and will be published on June 4. “They didn’t think it was a bad thing at all,” said Chen, now an artist whose works derive from his trauma and guilt. He is among few people who want to confront, rather than bury, this national memory, at great personal cost. “They felt it was necessary,” he said of the leaders. “To this day, they feel it was necessary”.
What is most difficult to grapple with when it comes to the memory of Tiananmen, as Lim writes, is that the “legacy of 1989 has not been all dark”. The decisions that stemmed from 1989 transformed China and brought prosperity to millions and have propelled the country’s military and economic resurgence. Deng opened up the Chinese economy, embarked on economic reforms, and dramatically altered the role of the Party as it retreated from the lives of China’s citizens in so many ways and gave them for the first time the freedom to pursue their lives and livelihood as they chose fit, to work, to choose their own jobs, to travel overseas. “People shifted focus,” writes Lim, “devoting their energies to buying apartments, setting up companies, and navigating the myriad of new opportunities offered by the economic liberalisation that was changing the world around them. All this happened not despite Tiananmen, but because of it”.
That Tiananmen cannot be separated from China’s subsequent success is what troubles people like Chen. The cost of the bargain is that many may never be given due justice, as the Communist Party still labels them “rioters”. People like 20 year-old Xiong Zhiming, shot by the PLA as he tried to rescue a female classmate. Like Wu Guofeng, also 20, shot in the back of his head as he was riding his bicycle, camera in hand. Like Chen Yongting, 20, shot on the square, the first of his village from western China to go to college. The only people to remember their stories are people like Ding and Guo Liying, who are chronicling the lives lost as a tribute 25 years later.
None of them are remembered today on the grand square. A tour guide, leading visitors from around the world, described it as “a symbol of national pride”. Young Chinese, in designer clothes, posed in front of the Mao portrait that hangs on Tiananmen gate. A video playing on newly set-up screens on the square proclaimed new Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vision of a “Chinese Dream” of national rejuvenation and prosperity. Old retirees from the provinces toured the square, rightfully proud of their country’s resurgence, their poverty a distant memory.
A few hundred yards north of the square, beyond the Tiananmen gate, sits a golden lion, built outside a grand Forbidden City hall. The lion is deformed: its ears are folded, and eyes gouged out. It was built, several hundred years ago, by the Qing Emperor to convey a message to his Imperial court and subjects: “Do not see what you are not supposed to see, and do not hear what you are not supposed to hear.”