Journalist Louisa Lim describes how the Chinese Communist Party has compelled a country to forget the bloody crackdown around Tiananmen Square in 1989. To create this national amnesia, China repressed political ambitions and funneled aspirations toward the economic sphere—a worrying fact for the Communist Party as the country’s economy slows.
Miao Deshun is a living ghost, a revenant from an episode of history that China’s Communist leaders have worked hard to expunge. On June 4, 1989, he was jailed for flinging a basket onto a burning tank while soldiers shot unarmed civilians on the roads to Tiananmen Square. He has been in prison ever since. “He wouldn’t admit guilt,” said Sun Liyong, who served five years in Beijing Municipal No. 2 jail alongside Miao in the 1990s. “All the time he has been in prison, he has been resisting the government. For example, they wanted him to do forced labor, but if he didn’t want to do it, he wouldn’t do it.” Sun described a man of few words, whose silence masked a stubborn defense of principle; when Miao’s parents tried to visit him in jail, he refused to see them for fear that his stance might bring them harm.
As China’s last known Tiananmen prisoner, Miao is due to be released in October, according to the Dui Hua Foundation. The length of his sentence is less the result of his actions in 1989 and more the consequence of his thought crime in prison. To the Communist Party, Miao’s refusal to admit guilt symbolizes both the failure of the criminal justice system and a repudiation of the official verdict of the 1989 protests as “counterrevolutionary turmoil.”
The events of 1989 transformed China, and the post-Tiananmen landscape that emerged was shaped by that act of violent repression. Maintaining this landscape requires further acts of repression—the repression of dissent, collective memory, speech and expression, political aspirations, and physical protest. These have escalated over time, and demanded more of the state’s ideological, physical, and financial resources.
“The 1989 massacre’s impact upon Chinese society, politics, and psychology has not ended,” civil rights lawyer Teng Biao, who now lives in exile in Princeton, New Jersey, told me this year. He left China in 2014, after being beaten and detained. Back in 1989 he was a 16-year-old schoolboy in Huadian in Jilin province, who unquestioningly accepted official propaganda as truth. It was two years later when he entered Peking University that he discovered what had really happened. Despite the fact that he neither witnessed the killings nor took part in the protests, he said he sees himself as a Tiananmen survivor.
Teng drew a direct line from the deaths in 1989 to today’s clampdown on rights defenders when he addressed the Congressional-Executive Commission on China last year in Washington, D.C.: “As the activists are captured and tortured, the gunfire of Tiananmen is echoing in the background.” Indeed, the events of 1989 validated the use of force to ensure the party’s survival and boosted the development of the “stability maintenance” apparatus to guarantee that coordinated nationwide protests should never again threaten Communist rule.
China spent more on internal security—encompassing paramilitary police, surveillance systems, and an informant network—than on its military budget in three out of the past six years, according to its own figures, exposing the party’s fears that its major threats are domestic rather than external. The targets of its most recent crackdown have included dissidents, feminists, Tibetans, underground Christians, and rights activists, many of whom have reported detention without charge, sometimes in secret “black jails” without recourse to legal representation. This lack of due process is even applied to lawyers. While detained in a police station in 2010, Teng overheard a plainclothes policeman saying to another officer, “Why waste words on this sort of person? Let’s beat him to death and dig a hole to bury him in and be done with it.”
CENSORING “THAT DAY”
Burying history is not a simple matter, especially in a country with 688 million internet users. Back in 1989, controlling information was more straightforward. The party’s first step was to flood all channels with official propaganda painting the protests as “counterrevolutionary riots.” Over time, the booklets and pamphlets laying out the government version disappeared from bookshop and library shelves, and they were not replaced. Information about 1989 gradually disappeared. Today it’s almost as if the violence never happened, although that lacuna allows misinformation to proliferate and flourish.
The narrative gap was no oversight. When it comes to portraying the events of that Beijing spring in schoolbooks, “the main method is quite simply total concealment,” according to Michel Bonnin, a professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He found short passages about 1989 in two university textbooks, including what he described as a “monumental historical untruth.” The official vocabulary has also been toned down, with the “riots” downgraded to a “political storm” and then to “the 1989 incident,” a description whose very blandness bears little relation to those weeks of tumult and heartbreak. The manipulation of language and the repression of facts have aided the process of mass forgetting.
The strategy’s success became clear to me in 2013 when I conducted a crude experiment on four Beijing university campuses to discover Chinese students’ familiarity with the most iconic image from 1989—Tank Man, the shot of a slim young man in a white shirt standing in front of a column of tanks on the Avenue of Everlasting Peace. Time after time, I watched as the young students leaned in to scrutinize the picture wide-eyed, giggling at their own ignorance, and asking whether this picture had been taken in South Korea or Kosovo or perhaps at a military parade? Eighty-five out of the 100 students I interviewed could not identify the picture.
As China integrates into the global community, the blanket silence surrounding public discussion of 1989 is beginning to muzzle discussion beyond China’s borders. Lecturer Kevin Carrico was initially met with dead silence when he tried to discuss June 4 with mainland students in a class on contemporary Chinese culture and society that he teaches in Mandarin at Sydney’s Macquarie University. When students finally spoke, it was to voice an “explosion of conspiracy theories,” including denying the existence of Tank Man, followed by expressions of firm support for the government’s suppression. Carrico noted a self-policing atmosphere—even in an Australian classroom—in which students whose opinions diverged from the majority did not feel comfortable raising them. He told me, “That’s what I find most disturbing—the ability to create a situation in which people of their own volition decide to reproduce that closed discursive space outside of China. I do find that fairly disturbing that those intellectual constraints continue to exist far beyond official enforcement.”
One function of China’s internet censorship is to firewall Chinese history from the rest of the world. China’s censors regularly block mentions of June 4 and photos of Tank Man. Every year, the ingenuity of Chinese internet users deploying code forces censors to block ever more anodyne words referring to June 4. In Chinese, June 4 is known as liusi or six-four; banned search terms include “two to the power of six,” “that day,” “today,” “campus upheaval,” “nostalgia,” “when spring turns to summer,” and even “sensitive word.”
As Chinese companies acquire overseas media outlets, this strengthens their ability to export censorship. In June 2014, John Fitzgerald from Swinburne University of Technology found that 11 out of the 18 Chinese-language newspapers in Australia failed to mention the 25th anniversary of the suppression. Even Western media companies have actively censored users, the most egregious example being LinkedIn, which in 2014 censored posts about the anniversary of June 4 by users hosted in China. The company spokesman, Roger Pua, defended the move, saying in an email, “It’s clear to us that in order to create value for our members in China and around the world, we will need to implement the Chinese government’s restrictions on content, when and to the extent required.” China’s purchasing power now buys silence on sensitive subjects not just at home, but increasingly in cyberspace, overseas media, and Western academic institutions.
PROSPERITY AND PATRIOTISM
In the aftermath of the crackdown, the Communist Party followed the sucker punch of brute force with the lure of baubles. In 1992, Deng Xiaoping’s southern tour kicked off economic reforms that succeeded in funneling aspirations away from the political arena and toward material aims. Three decades of double-digit growth helped the government shore up its tattered legitimacy, though a lack of oversight also allowed massive corruption, as shown by the number of senior officials with relatives named in the Panama Papers leak of offshore banking information.
The recent economic slowdown, however, is now eroding the Communist Party’s ability to deliver prosperity, with China’s economy growing last year by 6.9 percent, its slowest pace in 25 years. In search of other sources of legitimacy, it has emphasized nationalism through President Xi Jinping’s “China dream” of national revitalization and by stressing the party’s anti-Japanese credentials. The twin strategy of promising economic growth and stirring up anti-foreigner sentiment played a vital part in the ideological campaign of patriotic education launched in the aftermath of Tiananmen, which rewrote textbooks through the prism of national humiliation. “It’s a classic bait-and-switch,” said Macquarie’s Carrico, who has written on nationalism and identity. “You want people to forget about internal incidents and internal divisions by emphasizing pressure that came from the outside.” Thus, the deaths caused by China’s own army are forgotten, while the spotlight has been turned upon the Nanjing Massacre almost half a century before. Beijing says 300,000 civilians were killed by Japan’s troops in 1937, and now marks the day with an official commemoration, despite the fact that all knowledge of those killings was suppressed for three decades.
The focus on Japan’s brutal occupation of China—inculcated through education and replenished through the state-run media’s canny use of jingoistic clickbait—has created a young generation with what Carrico terms as an “almost reflexive hatred of Japan.” Their influence has generated a more strident public discourse, with calls for a more assertive Chinese foreign policy underpinned by state-sanctioned anti-Japanese street demonstrations.
In this context, images from 1989 of columns of tanks rolling into Beijing serve to undermine the official narrative, which emphasizes the role of the People’s Liberation Army as saviors delivering China from more than a century of humiliation. “That’s why the Tank Man image is so particularly toxic,” Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a history professor at University of California, Irvine, said. “In China, it’s not because it stands for one person’s bravery in the face of repression, as it does in the West. But it evokes images of Beijing turning into a zone of military occupation.”
Over time, the party’s sensitivity toward history has increased rather than decreased. Private commemorations of the 1989 crackdown that once passed under the radar have become riskier affairs. In 2009, a group of intellectuals gathered at a hotel for “June 4th Pro-Democracy Movement Seminar,” where they presented papers and later published the proceedings online. Five years later, when they tried to hold a symposium behind closed doors at a private apartment, a third of them were detained. In 2016, the security apparatus prevented a dozen elderly dissidents from having dinner in Beijing, while four Christians who prayed together for Tiananmen victims were detained for “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” Activist Chen Yunfei is currently standing trial on the same charge after visiting the grave of a Tiananmen victim in 2015.
The party’s tortured stance on history is reflected in one of President Xi’s favorite phrases: “History is the best textbook.” However, only the party’s version of history is the textbook one. Anything else risks being demonized as “historical nihilism,” defined by Xinhua News Agency as a political trend to “radically deny . . . the historical inevitability of China’s socialist path and to deny the leadership of the Communist Party of China.” This concept has gained new prominence since Xi came to power in 2012. In the past year, “historical nihilism” has appeared in a civil court verdict and had war declared upon it by the People’s Liberation Army.
In a speech Xi gave in January 2013, he elaborated on the importance of a unified view of history: “The ancients said, ‘To destroy the people of a country, first go at their history.’ Hostile forces at home and abroad often write articles about the history of the Chinese revolution and the history of new China—they stop at nothing in attacking, vilifying, and slandering, but their ultimate purpose is to confuse people and to incite the overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party.”
The subtext of this speech—including a much-analyzed section on the importance of not repudiating Chairman Mao’s legacy—was that the legitimacy of the Communist Party rests on how its history is viewed in its entirety. As researcher Andrew Batson noted, “If the legitimacy of party rule is questioned for one historical period, then it can be questioned for other historical periods.”
It is precisely because the Communist Party recognizes that history is the best textbook that it continues to pour resources into shoring up its monopoly over it. Back in 1989, student demonstrators consciously trod in the footsteps of earlier generations of marchers, invoking the May 4 march of 1919, the protests that followed Zhou Enlai’s death in 1976, and the failed student protests of 1986-1987. Given the rise of “historical nihilism” allegations, the job of party historian has become an increasingly fraught endeavor since it requires a nuanced understanding of which episodes should be foregrounded and which forgotten, as well as an instinctual grasp of what kind of language is permissible to use in which context. The line dividing the politically correct from the unmentionable often dissolves into uncertainty, leaving silence as the only safe option.
While limited public discussion of the Cultural Revolution has been countenanced, the taboos surrounding 1989 run far deeper. As a rule, it is only discussed in generalities by Chinese Foreign Ministry officials replying to questions from foreign journalists. Their official line is to state that a consensus has long been reached on events and then to retroactively justify the suppression based upon three decades of economic growth.
Unusually, the state-run Global Times in May 2016 seemed to break all these rules by running an op-ed that mentioned the last Tiananmen prisoner, Miao Deshun, while warning, “If you make the wrong gamble with history, your life is worth less than a feather’s weight.” Days later, the tabloid was reprimanded by the top internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China, presumably since this reference to Miao had served as inadvertent publicity, introducing this longtime prisoner, and perhaps even the “89 political storm,” to mainland readers for the first time. Such a misstep by the state-run media underlines how hard it is to control history’s ghosts.
Immediately after Tiananmen, Chinese intellectuals quoted the words of the country’s greatest novelist, Lu Xun. After a 1926 student protest in Tiananmen that led to 47 deaths, he wrote, “All blood debts must be paid in blood; the longer the delay, the greater the interest.” Until now, the blood debts of 1989 have successfully been bought off by the two-pronged approach of promising prosperity and activating patriotism. A slowing economy threatens to throw off that delicate equation, yet that is being counterbalanced by a corresponding spike in nationalistic tensions in the South China Sea. The ramp-up includes state media calls for war preparations, as Beijing stages military drills around the artificial islands it has dredged up from the seabed to bolster its territorial claims.
China’s reshaping of physical territory echoes its remodeling of history in line with political necessity. Thus the blood debts it chooses to remember—even celebrate—are those inflicted by the Japanese, rather than its self-inflicted wounds. But this is a dangerous strategy; overplaying the nationalist hand risks disastrous foreign policy consequences, while the chauvinist bluster masks the party’s vulnerability at having left China’s future in hock to a false version of its past.