Tiananmen Square a topic that still can’t be studied

This June marks the 30th anniversary of the crackdown of 1989 in which hundreds, possibly thousands, of students and other demonstrators died when the then Chinese leadership under Deng Xiaoping sent in tanks and soldiers armed with AK47s to clear Beijing’s Tiananmen Square of student protesters.

The Chinese government has never released the death toll. According to a secret British diplomatic cable released in 2017, the figure could be as high as 10,000. But few young people in China know about the 4 June massacre and academics are unable to speak about it in classrooms or write about it publicly. Those who do are harassed and detained.

Louisa Lim, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne in Australia and author of People’s Republic of Amnesia – Tiananmen Revisited, about the Communist Party’s determination to erase the history and memory of the Tiananmen Square crackdown within China, said at the time she wrote the book five years ago that she had shown the ‘Tank Man’ photograph to 100 Chinese students at four top universities and only 15 were able to identify the iconic picture.

It is the one of the man with shopping bags who stood in front of a convoy of armoured vehicles to prevent the military advance on students, perhaps the most famous image of the crackdown that ended almost two months of student-led pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing.

Lim says those who recognised the photograph were nervous about what it showed.

Since she conducted her research, “the control over history and memory has only tightened” in China, Lim said during an 8 May ‘Tiananmen at 30’ panel organised by Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. Even private reminiscences are increasingly being penalised, she said.

Exporting ‘amnesia’

The Chinese leadership is going even further than controlling its own population. “We are increasingly seeing attempts to export that amnesia,” Lim said, pointing to attempts to censor content by overseas publishers, and include, for example, pressure on companies such as Apple which removed Tiananmen related songs from iTunes or the refusal by Columbia University's CV Starr East Asian Library to host a donated bust of Chinese Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, who was one of the last to leave Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Liu died in custody in China in July 2017.

The library declined to host the bust on the grounds that it represented a "political figure".

In 2017, the respected China Quarterly journal published by Cambridge University Press blocked some 300 scholarly articles from being accessed in China. Of these, 10% had Tiananmen or 4 June in the title, according to a list produced by Cambridge University Press, Lim says.

“The Chinese government has succeeded in making knowledge dangerous and succeeded in seeding that idea that knowledge can have a price and that price could be too high,” said Lim.

Fu King-wa, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong journalism school, in April unveiled an archive of over 1,000 censored Chinese social media posts from 2012-18 related to the Tiananmen crackdown. Some Chinese netizens had tried to evade heavy media censorship with pictures of candles – Hong Kong has held an annual candlelight vigil on 4 June, and plays on the numerals 8964 to refer to the date of the crackdown.

“Citizens want to signal to the government: we never forget,” Fu said.

Tiananmen seminars

Rowena He, author of Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the struggle for democracy in China and a current member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey in the United States, runs special seminars for students on the Tiananmen Square Massacre, beginning at Harvard in 2010 and then at other universities and colleges including Wellesley College in Massachusetts and the University of Vermont.

“In 2010 many of the Chinese students at Harvard told me they really wanted to come but they were afraid their pictures would be taken. Eventually they came but they were very worried, standing in the back,” said He, who does not allow audience pictures during such events.

“The biggest challenge imposed on us as historians or educators teaching this subject is there is a contrasting narrative version out there,” she told University World News. “This is not like the normal different interpretations we always encounter as a historian, but it is another official account created by a big machinery to say just the opposite of what has happened.”

The official verdict – that the authorities were quelling “counter-revolutionary riot” – is unchanged, according to He. Scholars working on the topic are frequently denied visas to China.

For example, the Chinese government often states that no student died on Tiananmen Square on 4 June, even though documented evidence, including from Tiananmen Mothers – a group of parents whose offspring were killed in 1989 – shows this clearly was not the case. In any case, says He, students were killed in different places in Beijing and in other cities in China.

Tiananmen Mothers, founded by a retired professor, Ding Zilin, whose 17-year-old son, a high school student, was killed during the protests, have meticulously collected records of those who died – the task made difficult by “cover-up, deception, suppression and repression”, in He’s words, but the verified list has reached more than 200 cases.

Tiananmen Mothers have written almost 40 open letters to China’s leaders calling for the truth, accountability and compensation but the group continues to be harassed by the authorities in the run-up to the 4 June anniversary every year.

Weeks leading up to the anniversary

Government censors are particularly active in the weeks before 4 June and delete any combination of the numbers 6 and 4, as well as any reference to Tiananmen, a major Beijing landmark. This year all language versions of Wikipedia have been blocked in China, not just the Chinese language version.

The effect of the clampdown is that Beijing’s version of events dominates, even abroad. China sees the students as criminals, a version rejected by Wang Dan, a student leader in 1989.

“We ask the government to re-evaluate the student movement [of 1989] as a democratic student movement, not as a turmoil,” said Wang Dan, who was number one on China’s most wanted list after the 1989 crackdown. He is now founder of Dialogue China.

“I have absolutely no regrets for the price I played which is seven years in prison and I cannot go back to my country, probably forever,” Wang told the May seminar.

Hao Jian, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy, was arrested in 2014, the 25th anniversary of the massacre, along with two others, Xu Youyu, a scholar and former researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent human rights attorney, for holding private commemorations about Tiananmen.

Hao is one of very few academics willing to speak out. Back in 2009 he formed a Tiananmen commemoration group that later met in a restaurant to convene a seminar on the events of 1989. The group posted details on the internet.

In May 2014, just prior to the 25th anniversary, Hao and others were detained for the meeting held in a private residence in Beijing, at which they called for a government investigation into the 1989 crackdown. The authorities said those detained were held for “creating a disturbance in a public place, causing serious disorder”.

Speaking at the Fairbank Center event, Hao movingly described the hunt at Beijing hospitals for his cousin on the night of 4 June, relating how he saw some 40 to 50 bodies at Beijing Fuxing Hospital. Hao later found his cousin's body in a hospital morgue along with others. "The bodies had all turned black with the chemicals used to try to preserve them," Hao said.

Even tombstones could not have inscriptions that named the dead for fear of government retribution, Hao said.

“I am not sure what the consequences will be for speaking out about the Tiananmen massacre, perhaps only when I head back to China I will know,” Hao told University World News after the Fairbank Center event, pointing out that after he was arrested in 2014 the authorities “gave me some serious warnings and told me I should not talk about the Tiananmen massacre at any event”.

But, he said: “It is my duty. I cannot say no when people talk to me about the Tiananmen massacre. I have to talk about these events.”

No prospect of re-evaluation

Consequences can be severe. Xu Zhangrun, a professor of law at Tsinghua University in Beijing, was placed under internal investigation and barred from teaching and research after he posted an essay online last year in which he criticised President Xi Jinping and called for an appraisal of the Tiananmen incident.

He was among several who had criticised the policies of President Xi Jinping, which received more publicity than his call for a re-evaluation of 1989 in official accounts of his ‘misdemeanour’.

Perry Link, a sinologist with Princeton University and a co-editor of The Tiananmen Papers – a compilation of secret Chinese official documents relating to the massacre, which were denounced as fake by Beijing when published in 2001 – said: “It is radioactive to ask for reappraisal; the regime is very afraid of that.”

Any mistakes, even if committed by previous leaders, “hurt the prestige of the party and the prestige of the party is the power of the party”, Link told University World News.

“That’s the reason why the responsibility for the massacre is inherited. The current leaders weren’t the ones who made the decisions at the time. It was the past generation, and Deng Xiaoping in particular who made the decision, but the prestige of the party is invested in saying ‘we are always correct’.”

“If anyone remembers the Tiananmen massacre better than the victims, it’s the Chinese leaders; they’re obsessed by it. They send out plain clothes police all over the city, specially around Tiananmen Square, and the sites where the massacres happened,” Link said. “It’s not that because it’s past, it’s history. They want the world to believe that but they themselves don’t; they’re very worried about it.”

In 1989 University World News Asia Editor Yojana Sharma covered the events in Beijing, other cities in China and from Hong Kong for major British and Australian newspapers.