For three days in May, China’s national flag flew at half-mast in Tiananmen Square to honour the victims of the devastating earthquake in Sichuan. It was the first time in memory that China had publicly commemorated the deaths of ordinary civilians.
Crowds were allowed to gather in the square to express sympathy for their compatriots. Despite a death toll that has been estimated at 80,000, the earthquake shook the nation back to life. The Chinese people rushed to donate blood and money and to join the rescue efforts. They rediscovered their civic responsibility and compassion.
Their grief, shock and confused solidarity recalled the hours that followed the Tiananmen massacre 19 years ago, when the Communist Party sent army tanks into Beijing to crush a pro-democracy movement organised by unarmed, peaceful students.
The protests had been set off by the death of the reform-minded Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang. College students had camped out in the square – the symbolic heart of the nation – to demand freedom, democracy and an end to government corruption. There they fell in love, danced to Bob Dylan tapes and discussed Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man.
The city had come out to support the pro testers: workers, entrepreneurs, writers, petty thieves. After the tanks drove the students from the square in the early hours of 4 June 1989, nearby shop owners turned up with baskets of trainers to hand out to protesters who’d lost their shoes in the confrontation. As soldiers opened fire in the streets, civilians rushed to the wounded to carry them to the hospital.
But even as doctors were caring for students hurt in the melee, the party was rewriting his tory. It branded the peaceful democracy movement a “coun ter-revolutionary riot” and maintained that the brutal crackdown was the only way of restoring order. As leaders of the movement were rounded up and jailed, people who had donated food and drink to the students during their six-week occupation of the square began reporting them to the police.
Realising that their much-vaunted mandate to rule had been nullified by the massacre, the party focused on economic growth to quell demands for political change. Thanks to its cheap, industrious and non-unionised labour force, China has since become a world economic power, while the Communist Party has become the world’s best friend.
Watched on television screens around the world, the Tiananmen massacre was a defining moment in 20th-century history. Like Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968, it has become a global symbol of totalitarian repression. But in China the subject is taboo. Even in the privacy of their homes, parents dare not discuss it with their children. Blinded by fear and bloated by prosperity, they have succumbed to a collective amnesia.
Some might object to recalling calamities of the past while China is still recovering from a recent disaster. The western news media turned their attention away from political repression in China and Tibet, out of respect for the dead. When invited to speak at a London human rights event recently, I was asked not to say anything negative about my country.
But grief refuses to be channelled. It spills over. In Sichuan, it turned to anger as parents demanded to know why 6,898 school buildings collapsed during the quake while government buildings remained standing. As the nation continues to mourn, it will begin to remember the deaths it has been forbidden to recall: not only the thousands who were slaughtered in 1989, but the tens of millions who died under Mao Zedong’s rule during the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
The government leaders know that, despite their efforts to erase history, the wounds inflicted by past repression are festering. With each anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre it becomes clearer that behind the bravado, the party is as fearful as a deer caught in the headlights.
This year, Tiananmen Square was patrolled once again by plain-clothes policemen, ready to quash any attempts to remember the vic tims of the massacre. People in volv ed in the de mo cracy move ment were removed from the city or placed under house arrest. Last year, editors of a news pap er in Cheng du that carried a tiny advertisement saluting the “Mothers of 4 June” were fired from their jobs. It turns out that the young clerk who had approved the ad hadn’t grasped the significance of the date. She, like the rest of her generation, had been robbed of her own history.
Still, a few brave individuals continue to speak out and remind the world what happened. In 2004, the poet Shi Tao sent to a western democracy website a government document banning the news media from mentioning the 4 June anniversary. He was arrested and is now serving a ten-year prison sentence.
Two months ago, Ding Zilin, the head of the Tiananmen Mothers group, who lost her 17-year-old son in the massacre, opened a website – Tiananmenmothers.org – containing detailed evidence of the massacre. Only three hours after its launch, the Chinese authorities blocked it.
There is an expression in Chinese that says: “One can only stand up from the place where one fell.” If China is truly to stand up and deserve its powerful position in the international community, it must return to the place where it fell. The regime must reveal the truth about past crackdowns and apologise to the victims and their families; release the hundred or so people still jailed for their connection to the Tiananmen movement, and the tens of thousands of other political prisoners. And it must introduce democratic reforms.
The Chinese people were reminded by the Sichuan earthquake that lives are not expendable and that deaths cannot go unmourned. Now they have to extend that understanding to the victims of Tiananmen.
This essay was translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew