Tea Leaf Nation

Let’s Talk About Tiananmen

Beijing wants us to forget about '6/4.' But we must keep the flame burning.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

BEIJING — The violent suppression of protesters around central Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, ordered by the ruling Communist Party, is one of the most crucial moments in modern Chinese history. It has been almost 25 years since what many here call the "6/4 incident," which may have killed anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of people — the exact figure cannot be determined because of official censorship — but China’s central authorities still have not reflected on this expression of violence, one which mobilized tanks and guns. Instead, the government has expended vast sums on what it calls "stability maintenance" to stifle the voice of the people, all the while refusing to publish the names of those killed, missing, or detained after 6/4. Meanwhile, the families of 6/4 victims continue to be harassed by secret police. Through it all, many Chinese people have chosen to remain silent. That has to change. 

Even today, the 6/4 incident is the great forbidden zone in Chinese discourse. In 2012 and then 2013, as the June 4 anniversary approached, authorities issued orders prohibiting Chinese media from discussing it. On June 1, 2012, Chinese propaganda authorities — collectively called the "Ministry of Truth" by Chinese netizens in a nod to George Orwell — issued a directive reading in part, "Please delete information referring to 6/4 anywhere on the Internet." On May 27, 2013, the Ministry of Truth issued this directive: "Please block the following keywords from searches on Chinese Weibos [microblogging sites]: ‘Tiananmen,’ ’89,’ ’64,’ ‘June 4,’ ‘Li Peng Beijing’ [then-premier Li is believed to be one of the main architects of the 6/4 crackdown], and ‘demonstrate.’" 

One could argue that Chinese don’t want to look to the past anyway, they want to look forward — but the facts don’t support that argument. Over the past 20 years, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, and other parts of Greater China have consistently paid annual tribute to the 6/4 incident. To stop related information from filtering into the mainland, the Ministry of Truth issued a June 2, 2012, order that "every Weibo [platform] must, starting at 16:00 today and lasting until 24:00 on June 5, refrain from sharing any video or picture originating with IP addresses in Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan." 

Here on the mainland, mainstream Chinese society largely keeps a hushed silence around the anniversary, one aided and enforced by propaganda authorities. As a result, public comments about 6/4 from well-known Chinese are exceedingly rare. Here’s a revealing exception that proves the rule: In July 2013, Jack Ma (or Ma Yun in Chinese), the founder and executive chairman of massive web platform Alibaba, and one of the most successful and admired businessmen in all of China, reportedly said that Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader in 1989, made "the most correct decision" with regard to the Tiananmen protest. (Ma later claimed that his remarks were misinterpreted). The implications of Ma’s statement received strong criticism from some netizens both at home and abroad, showing that the power of Chinese civil society is growing, even in a time of hardship. 

After this outcry, on July 17, 2013, the Ministry of Truth responded predictably, issuing this directive: "Please clean up all comments that maliciously attack Ma Yun’s views on the 6/4 question, and directly close all hostile accounts!" (Disclosure: I used to work for Tencent, an Internet company that competes in some respect with Ma’s.) 

This incident illuminates the authorities’ continued unwillingness to allow any discussion of 6/4, even if, as in Ma’s case, the speech is arguably pro-party. The censorship is so tight around 6/4 because any public mention of the incident might start a discussion among the people, and the government would no longer be able to hide the truth. 

But we don’t have to keep silent. I think that the demonstrations at the end of the 1980s were a laudable attempt by Chinese people to seek democracy. Chinese who love democracy, freedom, and human rights should carry on the courageous work that those protesters started.

Specifically, we can lobby the governments, legislatures, NGOs, and academics of democratic countries to put human rights first when dealing with China. More mainland Chinese could also try to attend the annual vigils and other commemorative activities in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau, and help build museums and monuments to 6/4. We can also try harder — in the Internet, in our media, and in the academy — to find ways around the censorship that seeks to stifle discussion of 6/4. We must work harder to demand responsibility for the massacre, speed up the release of prisoners of conscience, put an end to one-party rule, and establish a democratic China. This is the best way to memorialize those pioneers who shed blood and sweat to fight for democracy and freedom.

Translated by David Wertime. 

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