'Forgotten' Tiananmen's shadow on modern China


Candlelight commemoration of Tiananmen massacreTwenty-five years ago today the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square. The glow of commemorative candlelit vigils in Hong Kong will not warm the mainland. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) remains committed to driving the past, this part anyway, from its borders. While grandparents may have transmitted the deprivation and violence of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, many educated youngsters have no idea of the events of a quarter of a century ago.

The blowtorching started early and was done with a smile as well as a stick. For the 20th anniversary, Chinese author Yu Hua wrote about the episode for the first time. From a dingy hotel room, reporting on the aftermath for a local literary magazine, he watched as the CCP began the serious business of forgetting.

Every day the television repeatedly broadcast shots of students on the wanted list being taken into custody ... I saw the despairing looks on the faces of the captured students and heard the crowing of the news announcers, and a chill went down my spine.

Then one day, the picture on my TV screen changed completely. The images of detained suspects were replaced by scenes of prosperity throughout the motherland. The announcer switched from passionately denouncing the crimes of the captured students to cheerfully lauding our nation's progress.

The national narrative on the mainland has never switched back. The overwhelming story is one of progress and prosperity. There is little room for 'despairing looks'.

The response is understandable. While the exact number of casualties is debated, one eyewitness kept a running tally of the dead that reached 2600 before hospitals went mum due to pressure from above. The official line from Beijing is that a few retrograde elements were killed in self-defense as security forces restored order.

Even the high-end figures are dwarfed by the estimated 18–32.5 million killed during the Great Leap Forward and 3 million or so casualties of the Cultural Revolution (figures for both are decidedly sketchy). Let alone the 14 million killed a few decades earlier in WWII. The 20th century has been brutal to the Chinese people.

However the legacy of 1989 shouldn't be reduced to a numbers game. Yu Hua offers a key for unlocking part of the event's significance. In the days before the massacre he cycled through an icy spring night under martial law. Drawn to an incandescent light and glowing warmth he sought out the source. This is what he saw.

Thousands of people were standing guard on the bridge and the approach roads beneath. They were singing lustily under the night sky: 'With our flesh and blood we will build a new great wall! The Chinese people have reached the critical hour, compelled to give their final call!' ... Although unarmed, they stood steadfast, confident that their bodies alone could block soldiers and ward off tanks. Packed together, they gave off a blast of heat, as though every one of them was a blazing torch.

That night I realised that when the people stand as one, their voices carry farther than light and their heat is carried farther still.

This is the true strength of China. Not the aircraft carrier sinking missiles, bullish economy, westward expansion or other aces in the proverbial sleeve. China's strength lies in what Yu Hua calls rénmín, or the people.

China faces numerous critical challenges in the decades ahead. If it is to overcome them it must draw upon this great reserve of strength. It should study the spirit of solidarity on display that spring, seeking to cultivate it and engender it more fully into its citizenry. Instead there remains a concerted effort to forget.

This might seem like the easy option. There is no culpability if nothing happened. But the victory is illusory. The past has a tendency of flanking even the most determined of opposition. And the cost is high.

The brutal decision to disperse protestors with violence was made 25 years ago today. The decision to extinguish their memory is made daily by those in power and their censors. Doing so only darkens what should be a pathway for China's steps in this new millennium.

Evan EllisEvan Ellis is a freelance journalist currently completing his Masters in International Studies with a China major.

Tiananmen commemoration image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Evan Ellis, China, Tiananmen Square, Yu Hua



submit a comment

Existing comments

Evan is right - Tiananmen is a shadow on today's China. But quite a lot of students at the time were party members, and after graduating they have had good jobs, with travel overseas, a house, a car .... They know what happened, and demonstrations were happening for at least a year before June '89, but when so much of your life depends on the Party it's difficult to welcome radical change. Radical change was in the air back then - the 1986 People Power revolution in the Philippines had a big effect on the Chinese students. It's such a pity for China that while people power got rid of Marcos, and shooting demonstrating students at Trisakti University had a sort of resolution with the downfall of Suharto, there has been no resolution of the Tiananmen massacre. If Li Peng is still alive it would be nice to see him disgraced, at the least.
Russell | 03 June 2014

There was no massacre on or in Tiananmen Square itself. The term "Tiananmen Square Massacre" is best avoided. See this article: http://oneminuteenglish.com/mp/2013/2013-06-04June4.htm
Fr John Wotherspoon (Hong Kong) | 03 June 2014

On the 5 of June 1989 I received Chrismation. I have never forgotten that day, nor the courage of the tank man.
Annoying Orange | 04 June 2014

While we bewail the treatment of victims in other parts of the world, perhaps we could look at and bewail some of the injustices, past and present in our own back yard, and do something about them.
Robert Liddy | 04 June 2014

Interestingly the ABC showed photos and film taken by Australian embassy staff which showed the dead on the ground and soldiers firing into the crowd. How do those images fit with "no Tianamen Square Massacre" story or is the Chinese government just trying to cover up what happened?
john | 04 June 2014

Hi john, if your comment was in response to Fr John (Hong Kong), he was not (correct me if I’m wrong Fr) doubting the massacre occurred but where it primarily occurred. As the eyewitness I quoted also wrote, “It was a massacre. Most of the carnage occurred not in the Square or right around it, but in the western-approaching streets that led to the Square.”
Evan | 04 June 2014

Thanks Evan for highlighting 25 Anniversary.
Marie | 06 June 2014

I think Tiananmen Square resonates with the west more than the Chinese,whose long history has seen many such one sided conflicts. We seem to forget that one video clip shows an army tank on fire. Were the troops goaded by a minority of protesters who were determined on violence?
John Thompson | 28 August 2014


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up