In the past few weeks, more than 20 apparently unconnected individuals have been detained in China. They include lawyers, gay rights activists, ordinary citizens, journalists and one ex-soldier-turned-performance artist and the tally is still rising. What all these people have in common is that they have committed a crime in the eyes of the Communist Party of China (CPC): each one was suspected of planning to mark the events of 4 June 1989, when Deng Xiaoping sent tanks and more than 200,000 soldiers to crush unarmed citizens in Tiananmen Square, the hallowed central space of China’s capital city, unleashing what became a nationwide act of revenge against all who had challenged the state.
Since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Tiananmen, the “Gate of Heavenly Peace” and the southernmost gate into the Imperial City, had been the site of interaction between the emperors, hidden deep within the Forbidden City, and the Chinese people. Here, people could gather to hear the reading of decrees issued by the emperor. The emperor himself would emerge periodically through the gate to perform his duties, as the son of heaven, at the various temples that surrounded the Imperial City.
In those times, the view south from Tiananmen was of a processional avenue leading to a further series of gates, but when the Communist Party took over China in 1949 they cleared this to create one of the world’s largest public squares, said to be capable of accommodating ten million people, a space that would become a vast stage for political theatre. For China’s rulers, this was where the power of the state would be displayed in military and political parades on ritual occasions such as the annual National Day on 1 October or at Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution rallies by Red Guards.
But create a political stage, and there is the risk that it can be occupied by other actors. In 1976 people gathered in the square to pay tribute to the recently deceased premier, Zhou Enlai, and to support Deng Xiaoping, then embattled against the Gang of Four, led by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing. It happened again in 1986 with student protests and, most notoriously, it happened in 1989, at the end of the most liberal decade the People’s Republic had enjoyed, when students from Beijing’s most prestigious universities congregated to mourn the death on 15 April that year of the reforming party general secretary Hu Yaobang, a man who had spent his final years under virtual house arrest.
The students’ script was radically different from that of the state: they talked of official corruption and pleaded for the Chinese constitution to be enacted, with its guarantees of rule of law and freedom of speech. They wanted democratic accountability, if not democracy itself. Thousands of citizens came out to support them and demonstrations spread across the capital and the country as workers, journalists and sympathisers rallied. The subsequent military crackdown killed and injured many (the numbers are unknown) and generated one of the world’s most potent images: that of a young man carrying shopping bags and standing his ground, fragile and unarmed, in front of a column of tanks, bringing the might of the state to a halt for a few, unforgettable moments. Beyond Tiananmen, even worse violence took place in the western suburbs of Beijing, where hundreds of workers were reportedly gunned down in the streets.
Today, the events of 4 June 1989 continue to generate new crimes – the crime of remembering, which is prosecuted as fiercely as ever, and the crime of forgetting, an ethical and historical crime that has been imposed on the generations that have grown up in the China created by those events.
There is, of course, a third category: those who remember but say nothing. As Rowena Xiaoqing He writes in the opening chapter of her oral history, Tiananmen Exiles: “Every year, on its anniversary, the government clamps down with intense scrutiny and meticulous surveillance. Tiananmen mothers are still prohibited from openly mourning their family members, exiles are still turned away when they try to return home to visit a sick parent or a loved one’s funeral, and scholars working on the topic are regularly denied visas.”
Silence is perhaps the CPC’s greatest success from Tiananmen, a silence achieved by the rigorous scrubbing of any word or number that could be associated with the events of 1989 from the digital and print record. All references are blocked (online, any mentions of “June 4” will be quickly censored; as will more inventive ways of expressing the forbidden date, such as 6-4, 64, 63+1 and 65-1), raising the price of speech and memory. Scholars in China largely conform, and academics abroad hesitate to research or teach the events of 4 June lest they lose their access to visas, as did the American scholar Perry Link, who writes the foreword to He’s book.
Dr He describes her own struggles between apprehension and curiosity, and the hostility of some of her Chinese students to the content of her university course. Many of those who were in the square in 1989 have chosen silence as the price of making a post-Tiananmen life. Despite heroic efforts to document the dead by the likes of Deng Zilin, whose son was killed in the suppression of the protests, and the persistence of individual defiant acts of commemoration (Ai Weiwei gives the finger to the square in his photographic series Study of Perspective, a work that obsessed the captors who questioned him when he was detained in 2011), this shocking act of state violence that made headlines around the world has been painted over in the public memory. Only its outlines are visible beneath the gloss of post-Tiananmen China.
Rowena He was a schoolgirl at the time. She grew up in Mao’s China, the daughter of an intellectual father who had always refused to join the party and who greeted the news of the student protest with the words, “At last we have hope.” In Guangzhou, the day after the crackdown, he sent his daughter to school wearing a black armband. Her teacher told her to take it off.
The author describes her decision to leave a good job in China and emigrate to Canada as an inchoate pursuit of personal and intellectual freedom. Once abroad, she was drawn to explore the history of Tiananmen, which eventually led her to Harvard, where she now teaches. The new book is an oral history, built around her personal story and interviews she conducted over many years with three former student leaders, all now in exile in the United States: Wang Dan, who was arrested shortly after 4 June and was finally released on medical parole in 1998; Shen Tong, a student leader who became a businessman and controversially reached his own accommodation with the regime; and Yi Danxuan, one of the leaders of the 200,000-strong protest movement in Guangzhou, in the far south of China, who was detained for 20 months and served a further two-year sentence before leaving for the US and a life of activism in exile.
Like tens of thousands of others, they were in their late teens or early twenties in 1989. They had been born into the chaos of the Cultural Revolution; their parents and grandparents had endured history’s worst man-made famine in the late 1950s and early 1960s when Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward produced mass starvation. They were adolescents in the reform era that followed the death of Mao. They had grown up inspired by the heroic mythology of the communist revolution and, as the author writes, “Their idealism was fostered by the very powers that ultimately crushed it.”
What led them to protest, at a time when Deng Xiaoping was dismantling the ideological carapace of Mao’s legacy and releasing a surge of pent-up intellectual activity as people tested their new freedoms, was not a desire to overthrow the party’s rule, but the hope that the party would finally put an end to its own corruption and grant the freedoms that the country’s constitution promised. Wang Dan was there, he said, “not because of hatred but because of hope”. They were, in He’s words, “following the long-standing tradition of Confucian dissent to help the rulers improve”.
The students were naive, as it turned out, though they had sympathisers, such as the party general secretary Zhao Ziyang, in the highest ranks of the leadership. They were not afraid, Yi explains, “because we thought we were doing what we had been taught to do – to shoulder responsibility for society and the nation”. The outpouring of support for their actions demonstrated that they spoke for and inspired millions more. The CPC, however, fearful above all of the anger of the thousands of workers who had joined the student cause, felt the foundations of its power giving way beneath its feet.
In today’s China, the names of the leaders of the 1989 movement are either reviled or forgotten, as are the names of those who led earlier protests. Some call them traitors for being in exile, although many have tried to return only to be turned back at the border. After the massacre, 80,000 Chinese who were studying in the United States were given green cards, but few turn out for the annual meetings, organised by other exiles to commemorate the massacre that eased their passage into American life. Those who came by the harder route, from activism via imprisonment, live a different dilemma, caught, as Rowena He writes, between “sacrificing for an unfinished cause and living an ordinary life”.
Back in China, the families of the victims still live in the shadow of Tiananmen, in a kind of internal exile that subjects them to a spectrum of coercion, from routine surveillance to denial of jobs and passports, house arrest and criminal charges. Subsequent generations of Chinese know little about the student movement and, as the regime’s pre-emptive response in this anniversary year demonstrates, they are unlikely to learn about it at home.
Yet the China in which these young people now live is a nation profoundly shaped by the 1989 crisis. The myth of a revolution to serve the people died in Tiananmen Square along with the victims of the massacre. The party that had justified its eternal grip on power by citing its mission to make the poor the masters of the country, the party that had liberated them from oppression to lead them to a socialist utopia, was now the party that murdered its own citizens in front of the world’s television cameras. In the wake of Tiananmen, the CPC needed some other justification for its role in history.
It found it in a new history of China, invented and imposed after 1989 and now widely accepted outside China as well as at home. This is a story of Chinese exceptionalism which casts the Communist Party as the contemporary embodiment of a uniquely ancient and peaceful state, victimised in the 19th and 20th centuries by hostile foreign forces that continue to circle, ready to snatch away the future at the slightest sign of weakness. Without the party’s eternal vigilance, this story goes, China will again be undermined by its enemies.
Two years after the crackdown, Deng Xiaoping relaunched his reform project; China opened up to huge foreign investment and put its patient, hard-working people to work in factories as cheap and docile labour for global capitalism. As long as it was not challenged politically, the CPC promised, everyone would grow richer. This latest phase of communist rule is a state-managed capitalism that has delivered on many of its promises: most incomes are much higher than before, and because the state controls the country’s resources it can offer great material rewards to its core political supporters. As a result, the party and its cronies are now hugely rich, most public intellectuals are compliant, the press remains censored and, despite cosmetic adjustments, the law remains an instrument of party coercion. Twenty-five years on, the CPC might count this a success.
Yet this is a state founded on the proposition that one account of history will always prevail, a proposition that obliges the regime to jump at shadows of the past, condemned to fear the voice of an ageing mother who will not forget the violent death of her son. There is a tradition in China of hungry ghosts, unappeased spirits of the dead that continue to cause trouble for future generations if their needs are not met. Today’s China is like a palimpsest, its modern cities built over layers of buried secrets. Under its shiny surfaces run the murmuring of restless ghosts.
The abuses about which the students complained in 1989 are more evident than ever and find new challengers in the lawyers who defend poor petitioners, religious dissenters and those abused by the corrupt excesses of servants of the state. Protesters have returned to the streets, to fight for their expropriated property and the rights to clean air and water. The digital world has created a public square where the state must engage in a perpetual guerrilla war with its own citizens. The trade-off of greater prosperity in return for civil rights is now a fragile one, as the ineradicable corruption of the party continues to undermine its legitimacy in the eyes of Chinese citizens.
Those who have chosen, or were forced by circumstances, not to live the official lie, including Rowena He, are condemned as traitors to China rather than as critics of the regime. For the three student leaders interviewed in her book, the events of 1989 and their subsequent exile created a permanent post-traumatic state. Much the same could be said of the nation they left behind, a nation that is waiting for the moment when the legacy of the tragedy suffered a quarter-century ago can be faced. l
Isabel Hilton is a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies