On Tiananmen anniversary, students sent on mandatory 'free trip' to Inner Mongolia

Official efforts to scrub the Tiananmen Square massacre from memory – and keep foreigners away from the site – has led to some bizarre incidents.

Bobby Yip/Reuters
Students take a group photo at the end of a candlelight vigil at Hong Kong's Victoria Park June 4, 2014, commemorating those who killed during the military crackdown on the pro-democracy movement at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Kafkaesque, Orwellian, take your pick. Beijing has been a bit of both these last few days. Official efforts to impose national amnesia have led to some very bizarre incidents.

Overnight on June 3-4, 1989, Chinese soldiers killed hundreds, possibly thousands, of demonstrators and bystanders in and around Tiananmen Square, crushing a weeks-long protest that shook the government.

For the last 25 years the Chinese authorities have done everything they could to scrub that massacre from history and from people’s minds. You will find no reference to it in any textbook nor in any newspaper published in China over the last quarter century.

So hyper-sensitive is the government to this “non-event” that you do not even have to open your mouth to get into trouble. Take the case of Liu Wei, a young man from southwestern China, who was detained on May 15 on suspicion of “creating a public disturbance.” His supposed crime? Taking a selfie of himself on Tiananmen Square making the “V for victory” sign and posting it on his blog.

Thousands of young Chinese visitors to Beijing do this every day, and they do not get arrested. But Mr. Liu was once sentenced to two years’ “re-education through labor” for expressing antigovernment views on the Internet. In the authorities’ eyes, when he takes a selfie at Tiananmen, it means something dangerously different from when anyone else does the same thing.

Another example: This afternoon, cycling down Chang An Avenue, which leads to Tiananmen Square, I saw a young man on a bicycle in front of me being pulled over by a policeman. We were about 600 yards from the square and policemen were posted about every 50 yards along the avenue.

The cyclist had done nothing wrong as far as I could see, and he seemed puzzled too as he dismounted. But he was wearing a black T-shirt, and that was probably his offense.

Perhaps the young man did not know that prominent dissident Hu Jia had issued a call for citizens to commemorate the massacre by going to Tiananmen Square dressed in black. Either way, it seemed that if you wanted to wear a black T-shirt in Beijing today, it was unwise to get too close to Tiananmen.

Foreigners were kept off the square today no matter what they were wearing, and some Chinese institutions went to laughable lengths to keep their foreign charges at a safe distance.

The China University of Political Science and Law was perhaps the most creatively brazen. Last Thursday it informed all foreign students that they were being sent on a mandatory “free study tour” on June 3 and 4 “to enrich (their) life experience…and also having students enjoying the beautiful nature.”

The destination? The grasslands of Inner Mongolia. 

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.