Saturday, June 1, 2013

Anniversary of the Day when Nothing Happened in Tiananmen Square approaching

It has been reported that the last person still detained in China for taking part in the 1989 protests in Beijing has been recently released. Meanwhile the 24th anniversary of that bloody Beijing night is coming up this Tuesday. And like every year, this fact will be completely ignored by the Chinese media.

Nowadays there are few topics which remain completely unmentionable in the Chinese public sphere. It is quite possible to talk and write about the Cultural Revolution, Tibetan and Uighur separatism, democracy or human rights. The Chinese media often mentions these issues, although of course it has to tow the government line.

The repression of '89, however, remains entirely taboo. You will virtually never see a direct reference to it in the Chinese media or in any kind of public forum. The closest thing I have seen is oblique references to the "political disturbances of the late eighties" buried within articles on recent Chinese history.

There has been one exception to the rule: in 2009, on the day of the Tiananmen incident's 20th anniversary, the English edition of the Global Times amazingly ran a front page story on the legacy of the event. Although the article correctly described how sensitive the topic is in Mainland China, and how it is never openly discussed, it then went on to toe the party line, stating that the government was correct in putting down the protests, and that this decision has given China twenty years of growth and prosperity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this article no longer appears on the newspaper's website. Even so it is amazing that it was published at all, and I am sure that it would never have got past the censors had it been written in Chinese.

In China it is quite possible to bring up the topic of the '89 protests in private conversation, although not everyone feels comfortable with it. I remember once asking a chatty Beijing taxi driver if he remembered the tragic events of that year. When he understood what I was asking, he said "this topic shouldn't not be spoken about" and went silent for a while.

It is untrue, as it is sometimes claimed, that most younger Chinese have no idea what happened in 1989. In fact a basic knowledge of the events seems to be pretty widespread, at least amongst people with a decent education. If you just mention the 六四事件, or the "six-four incident" as it is known in Chinese, most people will know what you are talking about. What is true is that most Chinese, at least those too young to remember that time, have probably never seen photos or videos of the demonstrations and of the subsequent bloodshed. The famous photo of the man with his arms stretched out in front of a tank is not at all well known within Mainland China.

On the Chinese internet all search-terms related to the events of '89 are carefully censored, as are the Wikipedia articles on them in all languages. Any entry mentioning the topic will most likely get removed pretty quickly from any forum based in China. That is not to say that if you live in Mainland China it is impossible to find material on this issue through the web, even without using a VPN, but you would probably need to know a foreign language to do so, and in any case most Chinese do not seem to be hell-bent on finding out more about the topic.

As always, the one place in China where the unhappy events of 1989 will be publically commemorated is Hong Kong, where a huge vigil is held every year to commemorate the massacre. Attendance for this vigil has risen dramatically in the last three years, but this is probably connected with Hong Kongers' increasing frustration towards the central government in Beijing, and tells us nothing about the attitudes of people in the Mainland.

1 comment:

Scottie said...


You are right. Topics like democracy, human rights and others can be discussed in the media, but unless it’s liberal newspapers like Southern Weekly, which also often fights against the censors, it’s usually pretty bland (I know you know about that newspaper). Dynamic discussions of these topics can be found in academic publications, online (e.g. and so forth. Of course, this also depends on the specific author, publication, site…etc.

June 4th is certainly a huge taboo. Though as you pointed out, one can still find information about it. Aisixiang, for example, has some articles mentioning it, but you have to really look for it. Knowing another language also helps. I was in China during last year’s June 4th and I was able to access the front-page story on in English about the June 4th vigil in Hong Kong without any proxy server and so forth. So knowing a non-Chinese language certainly helps in this matter.

The Cultural Revolution is a different animal. There are the Maoists or the New Left vs. the Anti-Maoists on this issue. You can see the two sides battling it out online and in publications