Lost memory of June 4, update #1

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I mentioned yesterday that a system-wide silence about what happened in Tiananmen Square twenty years ago this week has left many young Chinese completely ignorant of that stage in their country's history. I meant this not as an original observation -- the phenomenon is widely discussed here by outsiders and by Chinese people who are aware of the events, plus in the NYT op-ed by Yu Hua I cited -- but as reinforcement of a point that might not be so familiar in the rest of the world.

Of many reactions that have come in on the lost-memory theme, I will quote a representative two.  The first is from a Chinese person now based at a university in the United States. After the jump, a roundup of references and links on the topic.

From the academic in America:

Chinese government is embarassed by the incident 20 years ago. It is never a glorious thing to shoot at your own citizens. So it keeps silent on the issue.

But I don't think this is the main reason to students' indifference. There are plenty of resources about this on the internet. This is a staple topic in Chinese internet discussion forums, usually with great vehemence on both pro and anti government sides. The main reason I think is there was not really any support among general population for overthrowing of communist government even back in 1989. There was not any strike. (If there had been a general strike, the communist government would probably have fallen).

The general population watched the events unfolding in Beijing before June 4th warily but also with amusement. Unlike the participants in the demonstration, for the "silent majority", the events happening in those few months are far from the defining event in their lives. It is no great surprise people in China don't attach much importance to them.

And for most of young people, they don't have a lot of grievances against the government. People have lots of personal freedom as long as they don't touch politics. As for those political-minded, the communist party is always eager to recruit them. There are ample economic opportunities to absorb their mind and energy. They don't identify with the students 20 years ago the same way young people in US don't identify themselves with protesters during the Vietnam War.
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Now, from Elliott Ng of CNReviews.com, with leads to some of the extensive online discussion of this topic.

I posted on this topic of "edited memories" on 5/22. I was inspired by a 5/22 Peking Duck piece that also lamented the general collective amnesia around the TAM crackdown.

My Chinese colleague, "Grigo," shared her thoughts on some factors that affect whether or not someone has awareness of TAM.  She is from the generation born in the late-70s and went to college in China.  She only learned of TAM when she attended graduate school in HK.  Excerpted from her blog post:

It may be the most historical event in my life so far although I was too young to fully understand what and why every thing have happened.  Even today, I still don't fully understand the cause and result.

But, I was lucky enough that when I went to graduate school in Hong Kong in 2001, I was able to access all kinds of information (texts, images, video) from Internet and learned as many as I can about this historical event. Student Union of my college in Hong Kong has special memorial events on this day. They have been doing the similar thing for more than 10 years when I first experienced it. I know local Hong Kong people may get used to it (as they have been staying at the campus for 1-4 years). But people like me, from Mainland China, I felt more respectful to Hong Kong  for its openness and tolerance.

I have asked my couson who is born in 1992 if he ever knows about this. He doesn't, as this historical event is not yet in History class; and in really life, he doesn't have any channel to learn a word about it: TV, newspaper, Internet. No media is pushing this to readers or audience unless you are driven by strong curiousity and dig online + you can understand at least one language besides Mandarin. I've aslo asked my interns (all in colleges now) who are born in 1985 or 1986. Only one of them knows it.
For the generations born in the 80s and 90s (and probably even many in the 70s), there is "collective amnesia" of this event.  For those born in the 60s and older, perhaps there is more of a "consensual amnesia" where there is a general and grudging acceptance of the forbidden nature of TAM as a topic which is all part of a social compact between the people and their government.  I don't mean to criticize, but can say I feel a little bit of sadness that an event of this importance can be rubbed out from the history books.  I also feel that Western misperceptions of the event (e.g. "tens of thousands of students massacred right on TAM") can only be erased fully once there is more openness and dialogue about the event.  But of course, the Chinese government has many more important things to do than worry about Western misperceptions.  :)  However, I do feel that there is opportunity for the Chinese people themselves to gain even more confidence in their government (yes, I know there is a lot of confidence already among large segments of the population) when the historical record is open, accessible, and not manipulated from time to time by the government.

More from Ng, including interesting material from Orville Schell on whether China is an "ahistorial" society, at his site.

The 20-years-after theme is already the subject of so much saturation coverage that I don't plan any more updates -- except an important one of current rather than retrospective importance.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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