Tea Leaf Nation

I’m Scared to Discuss Tiananmen, and the Internet Is Partly to Blame

For Chinese, living abroad isn't enough to escape online spooks.

Getty Images
Getty Images

I am a member of the jiulinghou generation: the roughly 135 million Chinese born in the 1990s. We are web-savvy, dig Western movies and pop music, and are the future leaders of China. And we were born after the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989, when Communist Party troops descended on Beijing’s central square to bring order to pro-democracy protesters, killing and injuring hundreds or thousands in the process. It was a pivotal moment in Chinese history. Yet a great many of us in this generation know almost nothing about it — and those who know don’t dare to discuss it.

Growing up in China in the 1990s, I had always thought only three people occupied the firmament of the People’s Republic: Mao Zedong, the founding father; Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s economic reforms in the 1980s; and Jiang Zemin, the president at the time. These were the leaders written in my history books, shown or invoked in newspaper articles, and praised on evening television news programs.

I never questioned this narrative until seventh grade, when one of my teachers told our classroom that a few leaders had been "erased" from our recent memory, ousted for sympathizing with student protesters seeking democratic reform. I distinctly recall him saying it all "deteriorated quickly" on June 4, 1989, when military forces entered the square and "at least hundreds of students died."  

I felt history shift before my eyes. That night, I went home and asked my parents about it. They shot me a disapproving look and said it had been the result of a "power struggle at the top." I searched on the Internet, which felt less censored than it is now, but I couldn’t find quality information about the incident in Chinese, the only language I knew at the time. It was not until I had lived for years in the United States, and become fluent in English, that I finally uncovered more facts through foreign journalists’ accounts, U.S. history books, and the memoir of Zhao Ziyang, the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party who was placed under house arrest after sympathizing with the protesters.

The key distinction between the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising and other politically sensitive events in modern China is the relative official silence about the former. For example, although the state prevents discussion of the full details of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, a period of massive political turmoil that saw the persecution of intellectuals around the country, the event is nonetheless tested on high school and college entrance exams and depicted in popular books and movies. The 1989 Tiananmen protests, on the other hand, lack an official account or a chapter in our history books — not even a sugarcoated one for us to dispute. Baidu Baike, China’s Wikipedia, doesn’t contain an entry for the year 1989, and names and places such as Zhao Ziyang and Tiananmen Square are permanently or seasonally blocked on the Chinese Internet.

Among the largely urban and middle-class Chinese jiulinghou I often talk to here in the United States, many say they have also heard about the incident from teachers or parents, and find the subject fascinating. In the years I spent at an upscale, metropolitan Chinese public school, I recall three instances where three separate instructors deviated from the curriculum and spoke, albeit in general terms, about the incident. (One of them, a history teacher, said that it was his obligation to pass on the knowledge and that he planned to do it every year.) I feel confident saying that revelations like this are not unique to my experience; they almost certainly occur in closed settings in other urban, liberal schools in China.

A friend from middle school, who also heard about the incident for the first time just as I had, maintained her interest in June 4th after she went on to study law at one of China’s most prestigious universities. Perhaps thus attuned, she sensed the presence of censorship after reading the Chinese version of Harvard professor Ezra Vogel’s book Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China. She sent me a private message via an online chat platform, asking whether I could check the English version and tell her if anything was missing. I took a look, and saw that the Chinese version of the book specifically excises details about the Tiananmen incident present in the original English. (Vogel has insisted that the censored version still contains the "basic facts" of the June 4 incident, and was "90 percent unchanged.")

The immense interest among those jiulinghou who are in the know has not translated into active discussion, let alone action. Not all of us think it was wrong to use force against the protesters. And we certainly do not all think China should adopt Western-style democracy. But whatever our views are, we dare not openly discuss them online, in public forums, or even in private chats. And since the Internet is where my generation goes to communicate, we are essentially deprived of the chance to engage in civil discourse.

The Internet has chilled an honest reckoning with Tiananmen, not enabled it. While the web has given rise to a level of pluralism China has never seen before, and minted new, grassroots opinion leaders, it has also made everything we write, both in public and in private, more easily surveilled. Before the digital era, officials didn’t have the ability to eavesdrop on every conversation. But now, if I post something politically sensitive online, the conversation is digitally recorded. Everything becomes part of our permanent record.

As a privileged jiulinghou who had access to information that many of my peers didn’t, I want to accept the responsibility of honoring history for the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. Yet I don’t know what I can do. I don’t even know where to begin, as it’s impossible to estimate how many of my generation know about the incident, let alone how much they know, and how they came to know it.

In recent years many of those who acted as Mao Zedong’s Red Guards, or young soldiers during the Cultural Revolution, have openly apologized to the teachers and neighbors they persecuted, sparking national conversations around this once-forbidden topic. I hope that one day, I will get to candidly talk about the Tiananmen protests with other young Chinese, online and off. I’m not eager to argue which side was right on June 4, 1989, but rather to present the historical facts and discuss the best future for our country and our people.

Due to the possibility of Chinese government retaliation for speaking out about Tiananmen, this author has chosen to remain anonymous.

Due to the possibility of Chinese government retaliation for speaking out about Tiananmen, this author has chosen to remain anonymous.