Tens of thousands gather in Hong Kong's Victoria Park to remember the victims of June 4, 1989.


Every year tens of thousands gather in Hong Kong's Victoria Park to commemorate the events of June 4, 1989. Photo Vincent Yu/AP

By Andrew Rose

1989 was a year of categorical victories for the values so cherished by denizens of the “free world”: an end to soulless totalitarianism and a blossoming of new markets unheard of since the Second World War. In April of that year the Pixies released their crusty, noisy, and revolutionary album Doolittle. In October the fall of the Berlin Wall heralded the end of Soviet-style communism. To paraphrase Francis Fukuyama in his 1992 treatise The End of History and the Last Man: this is what we’ve been waiting for, and there’s no going back. Having crossed the treacherous waters of nuclear brinkmanship and appalling quality control standards on consumer goods, we have entered the age of inevitability; a time when liberal democracy seems the only conceivable future. Western-style government and capitalism washed over the former Eastern bloc like so many varieties of shampoo.

Today, as media all across the world are covering the story of Tiananmen, many millions of Chinese are still kept ignorant of their own history.

In the Western imagination the year was a sea change. But it’s never so simple as Prell, pantyhose, and parliamentary democracy: for the billions who didn’t watch German reunification live on NBC, or who were denied exposure to alt-rock superstars, things often didn’t change. Indeed sometimes they just got worse as autocrats retrenched, seeing their hold on power as too tenuous for comfort. Today, as media all across the world are covering the story of Tiananmen, many millions of Chinese are still kept ignorant of their own history.

* * *

It is very immodest and un-Chinese to speak highly about oneself, so I will merely say that when I lived in Beijing in 2007 I was a fairly good student of Mandarin at Peking University. Our classes were small, our teachers unfailingly brilliant (the feats of intelligence and competition required to get into Harvard Law pale beside those necessary to secure a spot in a Bei Da graduate program ), and there was among our little group a sense of camaraderie and debauchery one can only find among college students abroad.

Near the end of the term, we were asked to give a presentation of about five minutes on the topic of our choice. I chose to talk about the time leading up to the events of June 4, 1989 partly to shock my teachers with such an untouchable topic but also to determine just how much they knew about the subject. Today is the twenty-fifth anniversary of a massacre that would claim the lives of so many student protesters—somewhere between 264 (the official Chinese number) and 2,600 (the initial, quickly retracted, Chinese Red Cross number).

I stood before my half-dozen or so Chinese teachers—most of them only a few years older than me—clutching my index cards and telling the story of an event many of them had lived through.

In the way of so many nineteen year-olds, I thought that I knew essentially everything and if I didn’t I could learn with ease. We had books shipped from the States like Margaret MacMillan’s Nixon and Mao, which tells the story of Nixon’s trip to China. Or the juicier The Private Life of Chairman Mao, the autobiography of Mao’s doctor, Li Zhisui. These books were sometimes pieces of scholarship, and, in the case of Dr. Li, contentious personal accounts. What mattered wasn’t that some sources were more reliable than others, but that it was we, the outsiders in the Middle Kingdom, who would interpret those sources.

I stood before my half-dozen or so Chinese teachers—most of them only a few years older than me—clutching my index cards and telling the story of an event many of them had lived through. My story about the fed-up university students gaining support from the workers and the showdown on the Square was culled mostly from a Chinese-hosted copy of Wikipedia—that is, while Wikipedia is officially banned on the mainland there were some mirror sites that had the same content. While the presentation was largely accurate, it was still far from true. The information that I presented—about the union of workers and university students and about the brutal crackdown—was factually accurate. But I was an outsider; how much could I truly understand of that time, of those events? I stood before an audience of Chinese people and whitesplained to them their own history.

But they were largely supportive; these highly educated students and professors asked probing questions, looking for more detail than I could provide. In my limited experience discussing this moment in history with my Chinese friends I have found that while some are disinclined to talk about their own experience, they are eager to learn facts and information that they have been denied.

What did happen in the days and months leading up to June 4, 1989? The 1980s were a decade of major reform in China, but it was almost entirely confined to economic expansion in the so-called “Special Economic Zones,” such as Shenzhen, near Hong Kong. When the reformist leader Hu Yaobang died on April 15 of that year, mourners gathered in Tiananmen Square and their numbers quickly grew to thousands. The protesters successfully prevented a reception for the visiting Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, causing a great loss of face to the government and fueling calls among the Party leadership to clear the square. Another reformist leader, Zhao Ziyang, visited the square on May 19 to beg for compromise however the next day martial law was declared and troops began closing in on the protesters. Many believe that the ultimate order to fire on the peaceful demonstrators came from hardliner Li Peng, who had accompanied Zhao on his visit to Tiananmen. On June 2 the Party approved a motion to clear the square through military force, culminating with the bloodbath of June 3-4.

In preparing to write about the anniversary this year, I asked Cheng Lan, my friend and one of my old teachers from Peking U., about the night of June 3-4. Her parents participated to some degree, she said, but now they don’t care to bring it up at all. It wasn’t entirely clear from our conversation why her parents avoided the subject, but one gets the impression that bringing up old wounds can only cause them to reopen. Further, even today the political situation in China makes discussion of June 4 potentially dangerous. Cheng told me that she was seven years-old at the time and they lived on Chang An Avenue—the main road in front of Tiananmen. Hearing a gunshot from an army brigade preparing to enter the Square, my teacher told me, was her only real memory of that night.

The irony is that five thousand years of historical achievement, invention, and sublime cultural artifacts have culminated in an epoch that denies history in order to preserve the status quo.

Cheng has taught Chinese to foreigners for some time and has plenty of experience discussing the “three Ts”, i.e., Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen. In these conversations with students, she told me, Westerners are generally very well versed in the topic at hand. Their factual knowledge is deeper and more complex than that of the average Chinese. But, she emphasized, there is a gulf between knowledge and understanding. A Western culture of historical examination allows for both technical knowledge of an event and the ability to relive and scrutinize a common past. The irony is that the Chinese have a richer, far more contiguous history than most Western nations. Five-thousand years of historical achievement, invention, and sublime cultural artifacts have culminated in an epoch that denies history in order to preserve the status quo.

Of course the most obvious impediment to any sort of synthesis of knowledge and understanding is the fact that the Chinese Communist Party that sent in the troops on June 4, 1989 is the same CCP that will lockdown Tiananmen Square today. Further, even if there were to be some major peaceful political realignment in China (a highly unlikely scenario) so much history has been permanently lost to a refusal to discuss these things. One former Chinese teacher of mine categorically but politely refused to discuss the June 4 Incident. Like Cheng, she was also a graduate student-teacher when I was in Beijing but her background was quite different. Whereas I know that Cheng Lan comes from an exceptionally high-achieving background, this other teacher was more of a mystery to me. She was originally from one of China’s poorer, southern provinces, so her firsthand knowledge of that time would necessarily have been limited, but there was a greater reticence at work in her refusal to discuss June 4. In many ways her attitude is similar to that of Cheng’s father: Nothing good can come from dredging up the past.

No doubt there will one day come a far more complete account of June 4, perhaps the Party archives will be thrown open for all to scrutinize. Yet even if that were to happen tomorrow the task of bringing together newly gleaned knowledge with historical, societal memory would be nearly impossible because society has been forced to forget so much. The severing of this link between memory and understanding may be irreparable.

Andrew Rose is a student in NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program and an editorial assistant for Guernica Daily. His work has also appeared in Words Without Borders and he tweets @signandsight.

At Guernica, we’ve spent the last 15 years producing uncompromising journalism.

More than 80% of our finances come from readers like you. And we’re constantly working to produce a magazine that deserves you—a magazine that is a platform for ideas fostering justice, equality, and civic action.

If you value Guernica’s role in this era of obfuscation, please donate.

Help us stay in the fight by giving here.