Tea Leaf Nation

Let's Talk About Tiananmen

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

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. 

AFP/Getty Images

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.

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.

Getty Images