Remembering “That Year,” 24 Years Later

Twenty-four years after army troops rolled into the streets of Beijing and opened fire on protesters, the government is still working to erase the history of 1989, while activists are struggling to keep memories alive. In the Washington Post, participants of the 1989 protests talk about how they explain the events to their children, who have never learned this part of China’s history in their school books:

The dilemma is often more complicated for those who remain in China, where public mention of Tiananmen can result in government retribution. To this day, officials maintain that the decision was necessary for stability, and the anniversary is marked with thousands of police officers patrolling the square and chasing off journalists.

Those who have found successful careers in business, law and academia often talk of it only in private, fearful of consequences for themselves and their offspring.

Even some of those who have soldiered on as activists deliberately say little of Tiananmen to their children, who grow up not fully understanding why police barge into their homes each year as the anniversary approaches to interrogate and spirit away their parents for weeks without explanation. Some children experience restrictions and warnings at school.

For most parents, it comes down to a choice between protecting their children from the past or passing on dangerous and bitter truths about the authoritarian society they continue to live under. [Source]

Online, censors are trying to eradicate all references to 1989 and have blocked related search terms on Weibo. [Nevertheless, “6 4” still appeared in the list of top search terms.] For Internet users in China, June 4th has become known obliquely as “Internet maintenance day.” Even the candle emoticon has suddenly disappeared from Weibo (again). For examples of specific Weibo posts that were deleted today, see here and here [zh].

Activists and dissidents were closely monitored and detained in the days leading up the June 4th, and foreign journalists reported problems with Internet connections and other interferences with reporting this week. Officials have also preemptively banned any activities commemorating June 4 on Shenzhen University. According to the San Francisco-based Duihua Foundation, the last person jailed for “counterrevolutionary” crimes linked to the 1989 protests has been released from prison, at the age of 73, but “a handful” of people remain in prison for other crimes linked to the protests.

Despite the government’s efforts to silence any discussion of the past, many who were present in June 1989 are working to keep the history alive. Prominent journalist and commentator Chang Ping writes in a piece translated by the South China Morning Post about the dangers of repressing memories:

Yet for those with experience of June 4, that part of history has ever since been a blank. After sending in the tanks and troops to suppress the pro-democracy movement, the Chinese Communist Party made June 4 the most taboo of sensitive subjects. In 1990, writer Liao Yiwu was sentenced to jail for four years for writing a poem titled Massacre. Openly writing about June 4 became a dangerous act.

But it didn’t stop people writing about it privately or obliquely. Those who took part in the protest and are now exiled overseas have posted their accounts online. On the mainland, people remember June 4 or protest against the censorship through poetry and metaphors.

On the 18th anniversary of the crackdown, in 2007, the Chengdu Evening Post ran an advertisement “saluting the tough mothers of the June 4 victims”. That was the work of human rights activist Chen Yunfei, who, realising classified ads were not as tightly monitored, slipped the message past the censors. Some say the young woman responsible for vetting the ads even called a friend to ask what had happened on June 4 that had resulted in people getting hurt. “Probably another mining disaster,” was the answer she got. This is one result of trying to banish June 4 from our collective memory. [Source]

The families of those killed write to the country’s leaders every year to demand justice and a full accounting of the events leading up to the massacre, but they have yet to receive a reply. NPR interviewed one such couple, Ding Zilin and Jiang Weikun:

The group’s 36th open letter — none has received any official reply — speaks of the “general sense of despair” permeating Chinese society, amid dashed hopes that new President Xi Jinping would bring political changes.

“What we see, precisely, are giant steps backwards towards Maoist orthodoxy,” the letter reads, casting Xi as just the latest Chinese leader who has failed to undertake political reforms. “They come one after another, as if through a revolving door; and as they move forward, they become ever more distant and outrageous, causing a universal feeling of despair to descend.”

In the days since her interview with NPR, Ding and her husband, Jiang Peikun, have not been allowed to leave their apartment. They had wanted to mourn their son at the spot where he died, but they have not been permitted to do so. [Source]

Bao Tong, the most senior official to be jailed after June 4th, has called on all members of Chinese society to speak up and repudiate Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. From the South China Morning Post:

“[Some say] our China model is the best in the universe and our truth is the truth of the universe,” Bao said. But “without repudiating Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, it’s impossible for China to progress”.

[…] The silencing of dissident voices had disastrous consequences, he said. “If you cover the mouths of a hundred people, there could still be hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of mouths still speaking.

“But if they silence 1.3 billion people, that’s frightening.” [Source]

But not all 1.3 billion are staying silent. Some of Weibo’s most prominent participants have posted messages with their own memories of 1989. Tea Leaf Nation translates some of these messages, many of which use the widely-understood euphemism of “that year”:

A Ding (writer):

I’m going to sleep. Good night, Liubukou. Good night, Muxidi. Good night, Changanjie. [References to Beijing areas affected by June 4 incident]

[…] He Gang (journalist):

I remember that year. Passion on fire. History has rolled on for two cycles [in the Chinese calendar]. That year, it happened right before my college entrance exam, and it put a lot of stress on me. One of the popular majors in Peking University ceased enrollment in the aftermath.

[…] Shen Dafei (journalist):

That year, I was preparing for TOEFL after taking the college entrance exam. I only wanted to have fun. But that night, my father and I did not sleep, and stayed in front of the television to watch the live broadcast. At some point, I found that my dad became really quiet behind me, and when I turn around, I saw tears streaming down his face. That was the first time I saw my father like that. Before that, I had never felt such a connection with my father, and never thought I would have such deep emotions about my country.

[…] Jia Zhangke (film director):

Don’t worry about forgetfulness. At least the Sina censors remember. [Source]

Others posted images alluding to the “Tank Man,” who stood in front of a line of tanks alongside Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989:




An animated essay circulating widely on social media is simply titled, “Sound of Silence”:

In Hong Kong, organizers expected a large turnout for the annual vigil in Victoria Park.

Read more about the events of 1989, including a day-by-day recounting through archived original media coverage. An audio recording from June 3, 1989 from Radio Beijing describing the events has been posted online by Under the Jacaranda Tree and others. The script writer of the program was reportedly put under house arrest after the broadcast:


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