Watched on television screens around the world, the Tiananmen massacre was a defining moment in 20th-century history. Like Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968, it has become a global symbol of totalitarian repression. But in China the subject is taboo. Even in the privacy of their homes, parents dare not discuss it with their children. Blinded by fear and bloated by prosperity, they have succumbed to a collective amnesia.
Some might object to recalling calamities of the past while China is struggling to cope with a present disaster. Already the Western news media has turned its attention away from political repression in China and Tibet, out of respect for the dead. When invited to speak at a London human rights event recently as a banned Chinese novelist, I was asked not to say anything negative about my country.
But grief refuses to be channeled. It spills over. In Sichuan, it turns to anger as parents demand to know why 6,898 schools collapsed during the quake while government buildings remained standing. As the nation mourns, it will begin to remember the deaths it has been forbidden to recall: not only the thousands who were slaughtered in 1989, but the tens of millions who died under Mao’s rule during the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
Read also another recent op-ed by Ma Jian in which he speaks out about the current silence of Chinese writers, who were at the forefront of the 1989 demonstrations. Rebecca MacKinnon’s post “China’s grieving parents” also includes several useful links.