Remembering June 4th

Remembering June 4th

This post was co-authored with Samuel Wade.

The approach of the 30th anniversary of the 1989 protest movement in Beijing and elsewhere in China, and the subsequent violent military response on June 4th, has been a time of reflection for participants, family members of those killed, observers, and members of a younger generation who learned about the incident often many years later. Government officials and state censors have been working with extra vigilance to forestall any public commemoration of the killings. But the many personal accounts, analyses, and news reports published in recent days show that 30 years of official government silence on the issue has not diminished individual memories.

At The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, Harvard’s Yuhua Wang describes the long-term impact of June 4 and the subsequent intensification of “stability maintenance” and domestic security, identifying the ongoing crackdown in Xinjiang as its current high point. He also notes research showing that “government violence toward civilians in the remote past can leave a lasting scar on citizens’ political identity,” and highlights the finding by economic historians Melanie Meng Xue and Mark Koyama that political attitudes in parts of China that suffered state repression in the 17th Century remain different from those elsewhere, even today.

An eclectic post by Germie Barmé at China Heritage includes his own reflections on June 4 and its legacy and his role in the controversial 1995 Tiananmen documentary “The Gate of Heavenly Peace” (Chinese version), punctuated and illustrated with an array of documentary footage, music video, poetry, cartoon, and painting. “With the global lurch towards extremism and darkness in recent times,” he writes, “people could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that China’s Today might be Everyone’s Tomorrow. Fortunately for us all, there is an undeniable reality, one proffering possibility: there is always a day after tomorrow.”

An essay at Human Rights Watch by Yaqiu Wang tracks the successive waves of civil society activism since 1989 and the increasingly aggressive official responses, “honoring those across the years who have struggled to stand up to power and advance the rule of law, freedom of expression, and religious freedom in China.”

The anniversary has generated a fresh round of accounts of the events of 1989, from both official and personal perspectives. A new book, “The Last Secret: The Final Documents from the June Fourth Crackdown,” documents several meetings held by China’s top leaders in the weeks following the crackdown in an effort to rally Party support for the decision to use force. Ian Johnson in the New York Review of Books and Chris Buckley in The New York Times write about the documents, published by New Century Press in Hong Kong. Veteran Party official Bo Yibo, is quoted as saying, “Dictatorship has its own tools; it’s not just lip service or something propped up there to admire — it’s there to be used.” Learn more about the documents on the Little Red Podcast.

A former People’s Liberation Army journalist gave an interview to The New York Times in which she called on people to never forget the violence she witnessed in 1989. “All this is built on sand. There’s no solid foundation,” she told reporter Chris Buckley. “If you can deny that people were killed, any lie is possible.”

For thirty years, the Tiananmen Mothers have been repeatedly calling for a full accounting of the violence that killed or injured their children, many of whom were teenagers in 1989. In a new series of 23 videos, family members of those killed offer moving testimonies. In The New York Times, Ian Johnson writes about the discreet and subtle ways family members and others find to still honor those killed.

Several student leaders and participants in the protests have offered reflections to the media, including Wu’er Kaixi (to NPR), Wang Dan (in the New York Times), Zhou Duo (New York Times), Zhou Fengsuo (Hong Kong Free Press), and Fang Zheng, who lost both legs after being crushed by a tank on June 4th (Los Angeles Times).

Jian Liu, a student protester, recently gave The New York Times  a trove of previously unpublished photographs he took of the protests.  A Taiwanese photographer, Hsieh San-tai, wrote about his experiences covering the protests and published a slew of newly released photos as well. Canadian journalist Arthur Kent released newly restored footage of the violent crackdown in the early morning hours of June 4. The Washington Post also rounded up several firsthand accounts, including from photographer Jeff Widener, who captured the most famous image of Tank Man, journalists John Pomfret and Louisa Lim, Wu’er Kaixi, and human rights researcher Yaqiu Wang, Other accounts helped remind us that the protesters took to the streets throughout China, not just in Beijing. Michigan Congressman Andy Levin, who was in Chengdu as a student, wrote about what he saw. China Law and Policy blog interviews NYU law professor Frank Upham about his experiences in Wuhan, and Andréa Worden about hers in Changsha, in the spring of 1989. 

In an interview with Elizabeth Lynch at China Law & Policy, rights lawyer Teng Biao recalls that although he had been aware of the protests as a high school student in Jilin in 1989, he did not initially question the official explanation for the crackdown as the necessary suppression of a violent riot. This changed when he encountered books and eyewitnesses at Peking University two years later, and subsequently began a broader reexamination of the authorized history he had been taught. (Teng goes on to discuss the Tiananmen movement’s influence on the later rights defense movement.) ChinaFile has collected several accounts by younger Chinese of how they learned about the events of 1989. One was prompted to investigate after a blocked search for “carrot.” In a longer essay also at ChinaFile, physicist Yangyang Cheng discussed her own path toward learning about the crackdown, which took place a few months before she was born. This began with a teacher’s passing reference when she was twelve, and culminated seven years later as a new student at the University of Chicago, when an American classmate’s reference to Tank Man led her first to Wikipedia and then to “The Gate Of Heavenly Peace” on YouTube.

The extent to which young Chinese are aware of “64” has been particularly contentious this year. Teng Biao told CL&P that most are not aware, adding that “of course that’s bad because they don’t have that part of the memory. But it’s also good because they don’t have the fear.” The Pulitzer Center’s Ding Jin told ChinaFile that her own discovery began after a young ad worker for the Chengdu Evening News unwittingly approved a notice commemorating the anniversary, having been unaware why it was sensitive. A report by The New York Times’ Li Yuan in January described training provided to novice censors to cover similar gaps in historical knowledge.

At TIME, though, Eric Fish writes that “with the number of Chinese who are too young to remember 1989 in the hundreds of millions, what they know and think about that year defies generalizations.” While researching his book “China’s Millennials: The Want Generation,” he talked to more than 130 young Chinese “from across the socioeconomic and geographic spectrums,” and found that “complete ignorance of Tiananmen among my interviewees by the time they reached their 20s was the exception rather than the norm.” Their reactions, however, range from sorrow or anger to regarding the crackdown as a necessity or simply “an interesting historical footnote.” The Inkstone’s Viola Zhou also examines the attitudes of young Chinese, some of whom feel the “need to be careful, for the sake of my parents.” In an op-ed at The New York Times, Louisa Lim, author of “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited,” discusses some similar attitudes to Chinese authorities’ control of information about June 4, noting their broader efforts to bend historical discourse to their own ends. “In some ways,” she writes, “indoctrinating China’s young people with a utilitarian view of history is an even more powerful tool than censorship itself.”


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