Forgetting Tienanmen Square

China – State of the Nation | A. Quinn, Editor in Chief

The 27th anniversary of China’s infamous Tienanmen square massacre passed with little fanfare, and even less media coverage. This, of course, is entirely Beijing’s intention – almost three decades after government  troops massacred thousands of students and intellectuals, the country has waged a ceaseless war of silence and censorship, one that has been largely successful in shutting down any public conversation surrounding what it has named the “counter-revolutionary riot”.

The events of 1989 cast a long shadow, one that haunts how contemporary Beijing treats its intellectuals, activists, and of course its press. The lessons China chose to learn taught it to view even the mildest internal dissent with utmost suspicion. It’s citizens live under a regime that works unceasingly to ensure its control remains absolute.

Xi Jinping, China’s current General Secretary and head of the Communist Party was hoped to chart a new, more democratic path forwards. Instead, he has centralized power with himself at the head, taking on roles as the head of the armed forces, economic committees, and political assemblies. Mr. Jinping has put China on a path to assume its role as a Super-Power that will be laden with challenges.

The country’s aggressive and arguably imperialistic land-grabs across the South China Sea has placed it on a seemingly inevitable collision course with the United States and its neighbours. On the other hand, it has sought to increase it’s prestige and present itself to the world as an alternative to American hegemony through economic initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), greatly increasing its Foreign Direct Investment, and embarking on a diplomatic campaign to build ties across the world. To America’s annoyance, it has been largely successful in both these ventures, even if it continues to ignore structural issues domestically such as human rights, press freedoms, and endemic corruption.

“Tank Man”, the iconic photo of an unknown man stopping a column of tanks with his body. His fate remains unknown, the photo an icon of the 1989 counter-revolution. Photo: Jeff Widener

Reverberations of a Massacre:

1989 was a turbulent year for China. The country was in the grips of a post-Mao identity crisis. A burgeoning market economy that came with the relaxing of communist economics was creating new affluence, introducing Western ideas, but also disproportionately making small groups of elites wealthy at the expense of the country’s vast majority. The One-Party system faced the problem of legitimacy as the country changed at its foundations, and a generation of young graduates suddenly found themselves unprepared for this “new” economy.  More democracy, press-freedom and accountability were calls fed by the disaffections of the youth and to the alarm of the Party’s leaders, soon rippled across the country.


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China refers to the Tienanmen Square Massacre, as it is known in the West, as the euphemistic “June 4th Incident“, a name that belies the scale of killing and reprisals that would effect the country for years to come. The student-led demonstrations and the slaughter that followed are a subject that is well known across the globe, though what is often ignored is the fact that the protests were actually a part of a national movement across more than 400 cities nationwide. As the unrest spread, the country’s leaders faced a very real challenge to their control of a country in flux. Civil-war proved a very real possibility and so, the government responded with overwhelming force.

The Army was mobilized, martial law declared, and unknown thousands killed. Thousands of Chinese nationals were detained and imprisoned for their involvement in the protests, some of them kept in jail for almost their entire lives. After June 4, thousands were detained and about 1,600 were convicted of crimes against the “counter-revolution”. The exact death toll remains unknown.

This moment is essential to understanding why Mr. Xinping and his cohort are so opposed to opposition and seem hell-bent on controlling China’s historical narrative, its future, and how its people are shaped. The reaction to 1989 would see foreign press expelled, political thinking reigned in, the economy hammered down on to be carefully controlled and it’s people carefully monitored.


“The account you have been managing for years can be deleted in a second. Then you try to plot its reincarnation by writing every word from scratch. The house you have been building all your life can be bulldozed in a moment. Then you try to rise from its rubble by picking up every piece of brick and tile… This is my Chinese dream: harbour no illusion about the evil powers, and understand that their evil will only grow” – Censors have shut down the blog of a prominent critic and writer, Murong Xuecun who criticized the new age of Chinese censorship.

One China

The lesson Mr. Jinping has drawn from the instability of the early nineties is that ideas are dangerous, calls for more freedoms more-so.

China’s political elite remain extremely wary of dissidents, and so continue to crack-down with arguably disproportionate force onto them. In 2010, internationally renown writer and thinker Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize even as he served a sentence a prison sentence for his works that “subverted state-power”. His calls for expansion of human rights and political freedoms had no place in the Party’s vision for China, and so he and many activists like him continue to face persecution and suffering for expressing anti-government sentiment. Activists face imprisonment, beatings and having their financial assets confiscated.

To mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, bloggers showed that perhaps the monolith that is the state could not control people’s thoughts thanks to the proliferation of the internet and micro-blogs. Popular social media platform “Weibo” hosted a number of tributes to the massacre as users risked imprisonment  by posting imitations of the face-off. Authorities have banned a long list of search terms that might feed dissent or recognise the events of June 4th.

On the internet at least, there is a feeling that the censorship has in fact backfired. Beijing based activist Hu Jia told the Associated Press that “thanks to the roll of Weibo, there are now more people than any other time in the past 27 years that have come to know and think about the incident. He asked that bloggers show their remembrance by lighting a candle or wearing black on the day. Chinese censors have responded by banning any candle emoticons.

China’s carrier Liaoning, a recommissioned ex-USSR vessel. China plans to start building its own aircraft carriers in a move seen as a response to America’s own fleet. PLAN Photo

Lest We Forget

In Hong Kong and Macau, the self-governing regions of China, vigils in memory of the dead are expected to attract more than 100,000 people, many who will be coming from mainland China. The anti-Beijing sentiment of the Hong-Kong organizers is under fire for choosing the slogan “loving the country, loving the people: Hong Kong Spirit” was deemed too patriotic.

As the international community, it is then our responsibility to remember even if the Chinese populace is forbidden to. There will come a day in China’s near future when the country will have to confront the realities of our globalized world. It would be a tragedy, then, to not just allow the country to have learned the wrong lessons from 1989, but to forget the real ones ourselves.

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