Tiananmen Revisited: Can China Face Its Past?

On the anniversary of the 1989 crackdown, China remains unwilling to publicly confront what happened. The latest in an ongoing series of discussions with ChinaFile.
tiananmendeadbanner.jpgThe bodies of dead civilians lie among mangled bicycles near Beijing's Tiananmen Square in this June 4, 1989 file photo. (AP)

David Wertime:

The memory of the 1989 massacre of protesters at Tiananmen Square remains neither alive nor dead, neither reckoned nor obliterated. Instead, it hangs specter-like in the background, a muted but latent and powerful symbol of resistance.

There's no question that an honest accounting of the incident, colloquially known as "6/4," would change China's future. Clearly, Chinese authorities have calculated that facing the truth of Tiananmen would be more trouble than denying it. After all, a great deal of grassroots blowback could result from this revision to recent history. Who wants to be the official held responsible for that? Even if China's new leaders -- who were too junior in 1989 to have had personal culpability in the brutal crackdown -- wanted to make a clean break from the past, doing so would implicate numerous power brokers and patrons within the Communist Party superstructure. Such a shift in the balance of power among a risk-averse leadership is unlikely to happen any time soon.

Yet putting aside internal power politics for a moment, a compelling argument can be advanced that it makes sense to face Tiananmen's demons, not only for China's long term stability, but for the Party's. For one, the rise of digital media, which began in earnest in 2009, has made it harder to enforce the process of collective forgetting. Online censors are on high alert in the days leading up to and including the June 4 anniversary; this year, Internet company Sina even removed the candle emoticon from its Weibo platform. Nonetheless, they remain powerless to stop opinion leaders from discussing 6/4, or at least alluding to it in code. Anyone under 30 is probably too young to remember Tiananmen personally, but those older Chinese confronted with mentions of "that day, that month, that year" know what it means. Overlooking the cumulative impact of these allusions requires an affirmative effort.

It's hard for authorities to plan around such an unstable quantity. Better for China's leaders to give some breathing room to collective discussion of Tiananmen, even if no one is prepared to apologize yet. If censors stood down, the Party could take the people's temperature on the issue, and gain a better sense of how it might explain its actions in a way that both satisfies most Chinese and accounts for the truth. This could be the start of a healing and self-examination process that would render the words "six, four" less explosive, although never inert.

Until the Chinese Communist Party takes the difficult step of facing its recent past, it will continue to abdicate an important leadership role to the nation's dissidents and public intellectuals: guardian of the nation's history and its conscience. That duty needs wider stewardship. An increasingly pluralistic, confident, and digital China surely can do better. Near-term change is unlikely, but we can always dream aloud.

Isabel Hilton:

I agree with both these points: that China would be better for it, and that it is unlikely to happen. This is obviously a resonant date, but Tiananmen is not the only significant piece of recent history that cannot be discussed: China is one of the rare places in the world where the profession of historian is truly hazardous. The long drawn out refurbishment of the National History Museum, one of the few high profile Chinese state projects in modern times to overshoot its deadline by more than two years, exemplifies the difficulties faced by a history minded nation that cannot freely discuss its recent past. Since we are writing on this day, it's worth remembering that one of the after-effects of those 1989 events was that history was declared a matter of national security: the old revolutionary history was displaced in favor of the nationalist version taught today, with its founding assertion that the interests of the nation and the interests of the Party are the same. This version blames outside forces for China's decline in the 19th century, and fails to explore the first thirty years of CCP rule -- land reform, the Anti-Rightist Movement, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution -- where most of the bodies lie. It is a temporal landscape swarming with ghosts and, in the Chinese tradition, unhappy ghosts will go on causing trouble in the present until their needs are met.

Ouyang Bin:

In 1989, I was in primary school in Sichuan. My experience of the Tiananmen Incident started with recognizing unfamiliar, scattered words and phrases. Beginning early that summer, I frequently heard the phrase from my aunt who was then in college: "Hunger strike." Each day, on my way to school, I found the buildings on my route covered with posters. One word stood out: "Democracy." The context in which these words were spoken didn't become clear to me until I went to Beijing for college. "Liu Si" --Chinese for 6/4, and code what happened in Tiananmen that June 4 -- became a siren call. The day was a dangerous, forbidden, tantalizing secret, especially when people abruptly veered away from talk of it if they felt the conversation might touch on this time and place.

If only my fellow Chinese could see a chance to make money in the past, they definitely would remember the past, face the past, and make use of the past. Otherwise, there is no such thing called the past.

But I have always been able to hear the siren. It returns from time to time. One day, after a long talk with a professor of mine, he unexpectedly recounted how he had tried to persuade one of his favorite students not to go into the streets on June 4 and how he later carried his body back to campus. When I began work as a journalist, I discovered that many people were holding onto their stories of that day like secrets, no matter if they were environmentalists, journalists, lawyers or officials. When getting familiar with them, they didn't mind telling me their stories, quietly and in vivid detail.

ChinaFile is an online magazine published by Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations. 

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