Censored Online, 1989 Remembered on Liquor Bottles and T-shirts
In the run-up to the 27th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 military crackdown on protesters in Beijing, officials have begun the annual round-up of activists and others whom they fear may seek to publicly commemorate the event. Related search terms on Weibo are inaccessible, and Tumblr has now been blocked in China. Activists Zhao Changqing, Zhang Baocheng, and Xu Caihong were detained in Beijing after holding what a friend called a private religious gathering. Chantal Yuen reports for the Hong Kong Free Press:
According to Chinese human rights advocate Liu Xuehong, she was video chatting with Xu when police visited Xu’s home at 1:30am. Liu said that the call was cut and she could no longer contact Xu afterwards. Zhao and Zhang were arrested at around 7 am, according to Zhou Fengsuo, San Francisco-based co-founder of Humanitarian China.
Zhao was recently released from prison, and is a survivor of the Tiananmen Massacre while Zhang is a member of New Citizens Movement, a civil rights collective in China.
Zhou told HKFP that “it’s hard to predict [what the state might do] because Zhao Changqing in particular is a veteran and he was released not too long ago… but this can be really serious for him and for Zhang Baocheng.”
“This is their basic right. They’re just having a private meeting… likely a Bible study. They were praying together, just a private event in Zhao Changqing’s home,” he said. [Source]
Ding Zilin, the head of the Tiananmen Mothers group of family members of those killed June 4, is also reportedly under effective house arrest this week. From The New York Times’ Didi Kirsten Tatlow:
Sounding frail, Ms. Ding, a 79-year-old former philosophy professor, did not detail why she could not be interviewed. But before hanging up she added, “There are people watching and checking at my door.” Each year, the authorities guard Ms. Ding’s home in Beijing’s university district, turning away journalists and other visitors.
Reports circulating in Chinese and English on social media said that her telephone line had been cut and that the Public Security Bureau had issued her a special mobile phone with only three contact numbers, including China’s emergency medical care number, 120. Ms. Ding picked up her home landline Wednesday morning, although she hung up before she could be asked about a special phone or other details. She was also receiving text messages on her mobile, said You Weijie, a fellow member of the Tiananmen Mothers. [Source]
The Tiananmen Mothers issued an open letter to authorities detailing the treatment they have been subjected to in recent decades as they have continued to call for full accountability for the killings, calling it “white terror.” Tom Phillips of the Guardian reports:
In an open letter, published on Wednesday ahead of the 27th anniversary of the protests, the Tiananmen Mothers campaigning group said its members had been spied on, detained and threatened by security agents as part of attempts to cover up the killings.
But the families vowed they would not be silenced by such “detestable perversity”. “We have nothing left to fear,” they wrote. [Source]
Meanwhile, a man in Sichuan was detained for allegedly sharing photos of liquor bottles whose labels alluded to the crackdown. One photo showed a brand of baijiu liquor named bajiuliusi, the Chinese name for the date June 4, 1989. From Chris Buckley at The New York Times:
The man, Fu Hailu, an itinerant worker in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province in southwest China, was formally detained by the police on Sunday on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power,” according to human rights websites that follow cases in China, including Canyu.org.
[…] Mr. Fu’s wife, Liu Tianyan, said by telephone on Monday that she was unsure whether her husband had anything to do with the macabrely humorous images. They included a beer bottle with a label showing a man sitting in front of a column of tanks — echoing an iconic image of public defiance of the armed crackdown in 1989.
“My impression is that I may have seen those pictures,” Ms. Liu said. “But these kinds of things just get passed around. I wasn’t paying attention, so I don’t know whether he had anything to do with them. It’s just some pictures, so I wasn’t paying attention.” [Source]
With any mention of the events of 1989 strictly off limits online, in the media, or in other public forums, seemingly subversive mentions, like that on the liquor label, take on amplified importance. In 2007, a classified ad placed in a newspaper in Chengdu paid tribute to “the mothers of June 4.” The newspaper’s editor was subsequently fired, while newspaper staff said they printed it because they didn’t recognize the date’s significance.
As has been well-documented, the 1989 protest movement and subsequent crackdown are among the most tightly censored topics in China today, as they have been for the past 27 years. Unlike other sensitive historical events like the Cultural Revolution, which can be discussed within certain official parameters, the Tiananmen protests are strictly forbidden, as Jeffrey Wasserstrom recently wrote in Dissent Magazine. Young adults who have grown up in the intervening decades only know what the older generation chooses to tell them; they do not learn about it in history class or on the news. Chinese Human Rights Defenders has published a series of interviews with members of China’s “post-90s” generation about how much they know, and care, about the events of 1989. Most of the individuals interviewed work with Chinese NGOs and/or have regular access to uncensored information by scaling the Great Firewall, so their views may not be typical of their peers:
Q: When you reflect on 1989, what thoughts or comments do you have?
“In hindsight, I wonder how we can move forward if the government doesn’t face what happened on June 4th, especially with the Internet so developed now. Perpetuating its lie about Tiananmen only means that more lies have to be told to cover up the truth. It’s better for the government to admit that it made a mistake. The worst-case scenario would be if the government doesn’t own up to it and has to keep rewriting history.”
“I really admire that so many university students that year wanted to push for democracy and freedom in China, and it’s impressive that quite a few rulers were liberal then. Unfortunately, due to various reasons, opportunities for transformation were missed, and also left a generation captive to fear. With Xi Jinping now in power, we have even fewer channels to take part in politics, and we can’t even demonstrate or make speeches like they did in 1989. But many young Chinese have learned to ‘scale the Great Firewall’ and gain access to a lot information online—including some who lean a bit towards the Chinese Communist Party—so the historical truth is not so easily hidden.”
“I think June 4th is a serious crime committed by the Chinese Communist regime against the people! The courage and spirit of sacrifice of those who took part in the movement are admirable. It is worth always remembering and learning from the 1989 pro-democracy protesters”
“It was a democracy movement that needed to be reckoned with. Even though the demands for democratic reform haven’t been realized, the movement is left in the public memory and to those who can come forward and carry it on, so that something like the 1989 massacre won’t happen again.” [Source]
See also an Amnesty International report reiterating calls for a thorough investigation into the 1989 crackdown. For more on the events of 1989, see a list of relevant background reading; the best of our coverage and translation on 1989 over the past decade; and a series of original news reports from the spring of 1989.