Tiananmen still taboo in China after all these years

More than two decades on, some young people don't even know the significance of the day the Chinese police ended a massive student protest, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands of young people.

Petar Kujundzic/Reuters
A policeman stands beside his motorcycle at Tiananmen Square on a hazy day in Beijing Tuesday. Today marks the 24th anniversary of a military crackdown on a pro-democracy movement at Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

Chinese Internet censors went into overdrive on Tuesday, desperately blacking out any reference to the 24th anniversary of the military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, which falls today.

Indeed “today” was one of the banned words on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. If you searched for it, you were told that “according to relevant laws, regulations, and policies, the results cannot be shown.”

Nearly a quarter of a century after a student-led reform movement ended on June 4, 1989, with the military occupation of Tiananmen Square and the deaths of hundreds, possibly thousands of people, the whole affair is still taboo in China.

Since the government ruled the demonstrations “counter-revolutionary” no Chinese language newspaper has ever recalled them, no Chinese leader has ever referred to them, and citizens are not allowed to remember them.

Three activists in the southern city of Guangzhou were locked up last week because they applied for a city permit to hold a Tiananmen memorial march. A group of mothers whose children were killed in the crackdown and who have sought an official reckoning of the event ever since, wrote despairingly to President Xi Jinping last week that “to this day all our efforts have been in vain. We have received not a single response from the government.”

And frankly, this officially imposed amnesia has done the job the government intended it to do.

Political activists and “dissidents” recall the tragic events, of course, and do their best to communicate the fact that they have not forgotten. Like journalist He Gang, who yesterday posted “I remember that year. Passion on fire” on his blog, they find elliptical ways around the censor.

But they are a handful of voices. The vast majority of Chinese citizens pay the occasion no mind, and most people under 35 are not even aware of what 6/4 signifies.

Still, the paranoia that the censors displayed on Tuesday – banning any combination of digits that might add up to 64 or 89 – suggests that the authorities are by no means comfortable in their seats of power.

The mood in China is certainly very different from the 1980s, when the universities and the press were in political and intellectual ferment. Today, the dead weight of ideological orthodoxy stifles any debate about political reform and “democracy” is not a rallying cry for many Chinese citizens.

Instead, they are much more likely to be angry about the way in which their government has failed to take care of practical matters in the headlong rush for economic development. And they are not shy to express that anger.

Recent street protests in the southwestern city of Kunming against a gas factory reflected widespread environmental concerns. Angry comments on the Chinese web today about the locked doors that trapped victims of Monday’s deadly poultry factory fire suggested that corrupt safety inspectors may have played a role. 

In the minds of democracy activists, of course, such practical matters are not unrelated to broader philosophical questions. A properly elected government, subject to democratic oversight, might have felt obliged to provide better protection for the country’s environment and its citizens’ lives, for example.

But this is not an argument that resonates with most Chinese citizens. Instead, they look to the authorities to show stronger guidance and control in order to correct society’s shortcomings.

For many liberals, official readiness to reconsider the ruling Communist Party’s harsh judgment of the Tiananmen protests would be a key indicator that the government was ready for political reform. (Get a sense of what the mood was like a year after the protests)

There is little sign of that, however. Rebutting a statement from Washington marking the Tiananmen anniversary, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei insisted that “a clear conclusion has already been made concerning the political turmoil that happened in the late 1980s,” and that “the path we have chosen serves the fundamental interest of the Chinese people.”

That kind of statement, coming on top of a recent crackdown on independent-minded intellectuals, does not bode well for the sort of future some liberals foresaw under new President Xi. The Tiananmen Mothers were blunt in their open letter to the president. After 24 years “our hope is fading,” they wrote, “and despair is drawing near.”

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.