Memory and Forgetfulness in Tragedy: The Tiananmen Square massacre
China hasn’t just survived their inscrutability, they have thrived in it.
On June 4 every year, and the weeks leading up to it, there is a period of marked selective silence and significance in China. The Chinese government goes into overdrive, increasing surveillance, and more importantly, cleansing the web pages available to its citizens of any references to a terrible event that took place in Beijing, in 1989 : The Massacre in Tiananmen Square.
As you read this story, we would like to take a moment to remind you that the information you have free access to, is invisible to billions of internet users in China - including everything contained on this page. In 2012 and 2014, ahead of the anniversary of the Massacre, internet users in China saw a crackdown on information access - the State even went so far as to block Google.
Coming to the details of the Massacre - as the BBC phrased it, “There are no official acts of remembrance for the events of 1989 in Beijing. But that statement, although factually correct, is far too neutral.”
Politically motivated neutrality, state imposed censorship, silence on a national tragedy - it sounds starkly Orwellian. With a state machine ensuring citizens cannot access reports relating to the massacre, and cannot comment, empathise, sympathise, or even mention the massacre, there are inevitable questions that must be raised.
So let’s begin with what happened.
On June 4, 1989, China’s Communist Party turned its military and armed forces on its own citizens. Gathered in Tiananmen Square were a large group of young students, peacefully participating in what would later be called the 1989 Democracy Movement. In response to the movement’s national popularity, the People’s Liberation Army, backed by the Communist Party of China, the government, and the State Council; declared martial law. This declaration came on May 20, 1989.
The students continued to call for democracy, a stop to the nationwide censorship, freedom to assemble, freedom from government corruption, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and greater governmental accountability. Finally, on the fateful day in question, troops fired on peaceful demonstrators with assault rifles and tanks. Although there has been no official death count - how can there be, when the government doesn’t accept this even happened? - estimates of the death toll vary, with some accounts going up to 2600 fatalities and thousands wounded. Western media has always been accused by China of exaggerating these figures - but without an official stance, verification is not even a possibility.
This is the bare bones of the massacre that has had the Chinese government take on a systematic movement to erase the memory of its people, of this terrible tragedy, for the last 30 years. The State stance has been one of actively imposed amnesia - and any defiance of this has led to stringent consequences.
This stance of the government, however, only serves to multiply the effect of the tragedy multifold. The immediate, and long lasting government response to the movement was simple - tighten power, increase control, double down on punishment, multiply surveillance; and never allow a populist movement to erode the sovereignty of China ever again.
This mandated amnesia veers so far as to penalise the citizens of China for even absurd, oblique references to the Massacre. In 2016, four men were arrested for marketing a drink bearing a label with the Chinese characters for “Eight Nine Six Four” - the date of the massacre. As of May 2019, these four defendants were still serving out criminal sentences for “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble”. This is a common charge deployed against activists and dissidents in China. And here’s the thing - the majority of these incarcerations are spent in solitary confinement.
The human rights violations in China have always been a matter of intense international scrutiny; despite the nation’s seeming cultural impenetrability. What is most heartbreaking, however, is seeing that the present generation of internet users seem to have no idea of the existence of such a bloody event in the history of their country. China’s efforts to whitewash its actions has resulted in the abject distortion and outright block of information available to its people. Not only has censorship been internalised - but a national tragedy of a massive scale has been scrubbed from the collective consciousness of China.
Just to put things in context - you might never have heard of the Tiananmen Massacre - but the true harm lies in the fact that in China, neither have many of your peers. Instead, their right to know has been exchanged with immense exponential economic growth; their right to dissent with a national identity. China hasn’t just survived their inscrutability, they have thrived in it.
Think back to one of the most iconic protest images of all time - a man, a lone man, wearing a white shirt and black pants, holding two shopping bags, facing down a row of tanks. His sole, solitary defiance has been a rallying call around which multiple peaceful protest movements centre themselves today. His poise - shuffling from side to side, exhibiting the sweetest, most simple civil disobedience - remains the incarnation of the power of the people to bring to a standstill even the most monstrous state machinery. This man, lost in the annals of time, left unaccounted for, made his mark at Tiananmen Square. This event was the stage of his protest, and the backdrop to the lasting impact he would leave on the memories of millions - all lost within the country he so resolutely made his stance for.