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Erased: the Legacy of Tiananmen in China

We probably never will know how many people were killed. It’s often the case that mass deaths are reduced to mere numbers; for the estimated thousands who lost their lives protesting for a free, fair, democratic China at Tiananmen Square 31 years ago today, their memories do not even live on as statistics. Instead, those courageous individuals have been all but forgotten in the state-enforced amnesia that has suppressed all mention of the tragic events that unfolded that day.


Bodies and bicycles lay sprawled across Chang'an Avenue, next to Tiananmen Square, following the government crackdown on June 4th, 1989.


So where does that leave June 4th, 1989 in Chinese minds and national discourse today? In many senses the Tiananmen Square Massacre represents a clearly definable starting point for the powerful, prosperous China that we see now. It was the moment in which a social contract was forged between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its citizens: we will ensure you get rich, are looked after, and have a China to be proud of and, in return, we expect unwavering loyalty to the Party. It was also the moment that proved to be the catalyst for the ramping up of patriotic education and top-down dissemination of the notion that “hostile foreign agents” are attempting to undermine China’s rise and that only the CCP are capable of preventing them from succeeding. The promise of material wealth and rampant nationalism continue to fuel China’s ascension under Xi Jinping. 


And yet, Tiananmen Square remains the biggest taboo subject in China. When visiting Beijing, you’ll find security cameras attached to every pole surrounding the square and legions of security personnel on the lookout for individuals or groups with the potential to cause trouble. Internet searches for the massacre draw blanks, and there is no mention of any kind of civil unrest in school history textbooks. The prohibition of the annual Tiananmen Square vigil in Hong Kong due to “health concerns over coronavirus” is likely to be made a permanent policy. In order to avoid damage to its legitimacy, the CCP has, for all intents and purposes, tried to make it look like nothing ever happened. 


The Hong Kong vigil won't take place this year - the CCP will push to ensure this becomes a permanent policy.


Those who lived through the bloody crackdown have stored away the haunting memories. The romantic idealism that appeared contagious as students flocked to Beijing in the Spring/Summer of 1989 has been replaced by a desire for financial and social stability. Elizabeth Shi, a China Insider contributor, recalls questioning her parents about the incident after hearing about it from a friend as a teenager. Whilst her parents admitted the killing of protesters had been sanctioned by the government, they told her the crackdown was necessary for social harmony and gave her a strict warning about the dangers of expressing political opinions publicly. With the CCP cultivating a culture of fear around speaking out freely and the stakes of engaging in political activism being so high, there is little incentive for Elizabeth’s parents and the rest of their generation to dwell upon how things could have turned out differently.


For their children, they have only lived during a time in which China has flourished. According to "Yong", a 28 year-old Hangzhou photographer who preferred not to reveal his full name, 90% of Chinese millennials aren’t aware of the significance of the date or any efforts to commemorate it. Those who have heard about the massacre through the grapevine, or have seen footage when abroad or through using a VPN, often claim that the death toll has been greatly exaggerated by foreign press, or that a massacre simply didn’t occur. Any youthful zeal that lingers on amongst China’s younger generation is more likely to be directed towards patriotically extolling China’s virtues as a rising power. They may be aware that the government hides information from them but, as with their parents, they also believe that national unity is essential for China’s progress to be maintained.


Thousands flocked to Tiananmen Square believing democracy could be achieved - today it appears to be further away than ever.


As each year passes, the legacy of 1989 diminishes in the minds of China’s own. The aftermath - not least the collective memory wipe of events that unfolded on June 4th - paved the way for a political system that has unarguably aided China's advancement thus far. The quest for greater personal freedom may not be at the forefront of young Chinese minds as it was 31 years ago, but it would be a tragedy in itself if the memories of those who fell demonstrating at Tiananmen Square for their vision of modern China were to fade from history entirely. 





The China Insider recommends visiting Ma Jian's Twitter page to see more fascinating images from the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

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