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People’s republic of amnesia: exhuming China’s Tiananmen trauma

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

“Lies written in ink can’t hide truths written in blood.” — Lu Xun, writer

Last week, I noted that anti-Japanese patriotic education was one of the significant consequences of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement in 1989. The CCP has also buried the June 4 massacre and orchestrated an organized forgetting. In this final segment, prominent intellectuals intimately familiar with China shared their assessments with me.

Louisa Lim who reported from China for National Public Radio (NPR) and wrote “The People’s Republic of Amnesia” (Oxford 2014), emailed me, “The government has imposed amnesia by rewriting its own history, censoring references to the crackdown and punishing all commemorations of what happened on June 4, 1989.” She adds, “amnesia is a ‘state-sponsored sport,’ one in which the general public participates. Historical truth is still dangerous in today’s China, and amnesia is the safe option. In the China of today, that most personal space of all — memory — has become a political tool.” People trying to commemorate the June 4 jubilee are arrested, crossing a line that embarrasses the regime. Lim recently wrote in The Washington Post, “China’s leaders are personally vulnerable because they trace their lineage to the winners of the power struggle that cleaved their party in 1989. . . . The party’s ultimate goal is ensuring its own survival, and it has clearly decided that it needs to keep a lid on discussion about Tiananmen in public, in private and in cyberspace.”

Pankaj Mishra, author of “From the Ruins of Empire” (2012), comments: “I think our sense of the protests has been greatly qualified — they were not the simple clamor for American-style ‘democracy’ they were presented as by the international media. There was a diversity of movements behind them, many of them asking for more social democracy rather than less, more welfare for the poor and working classes rather than rampant privatization. And the students at the square were one component of a nationwide surge. They came at the end of a turbulent decade of change when anything suddenly seemed possible. And their suppression brutally defined the limits of what was possible. The party bet heavily after that on delivering better quality of life to many Chinese and seeding the aspiration for it among the rest. In this gamble they seem to have succeeded — something reflected in the nonexistent or fading memory of the protests in China, especially among the youth.”

Mark Selden, editor of The Asia-Pacific Journal, explains: “The events at Tiananmen should be viewed both in the context of China’s century-and-a-half of revolution, and the legacy of the Cultural Revolution in particular, and successive revolutions leading to the end of communist rule in East Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it was also notable for the short-lived beginnings of an ultimately abortive effort to link student and labor movements to address the core political and social issues of post-Mao and post-revolutionary China. The failure of that alliance made it possible to crush the movement. It is also at the heart of China’s continued socio-political malaise, including both its stalled democracy and mounting problems of social inequality.” Selden adds, “Ultimately, the CCP will have to confront the history of that moment, just as other nations such as the U.S. and Japan will have to confront the most sensitive issues cloaked in their own historical amnesia.”

Philip Cunningham, author of “Tiananmen Moon” (2014), thinks the massacre is too big to forget, but laments, “Talking to Chinese students, as I did recently, it is surprising to see how effectively the event has been reduced to a few disinterested lines about how ‘it was necessary to preserve stability and unity upon which today’s economic success rests.’”

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a history professor at the University of California, Irvine, says: “The Chinese government would like the world to forget the events of April through June of 1989, when students and then members of all other urban social groups took the streets in massive numbers, not only in Beijing but in cities across China. They would also, especially, like the world to forget the bloodshed of early June, a time when the army killed students and ordinary citizens in Beijing on the streets near Tiananmen Square and there was also a massacre after that in Chengdu.

“These events, though, are important to remember for at least two reasons. The bravery and sacrifice of those who lost their lives in the struggle deserve to be honored. And we simply can’t understand what has happened in China since 1989 without being aware of what happened then. The government has spent enormous energy since 1989, not only on trying to scrub domestic media clean of allusions to and divert global attention from the events of that year, but also to try to keep from having to face a replay of the massive cross-class protests that preceded the massacres. This shows through in both the ‘carrot’ and the ‘stick’ sides of post-1989 policies, from pulling back from micromanaging daily life on Chinese campuses (one of many sources of discontent among students 25 years ago) to moving ruthlessly against any movement for change that seems to be linking up people in different locales and belonging to different social strata.”

Wasserstrom adds: “It is also important to remember 1989 because some of the grievances that brought people to the streets in such large numbers, such as disgust with nepotism and corruption among those governing China, have not gone away. The Chinese boom has brought much more wealth into the country, but the complaint raised in some of the first wall posters of 1989, holding that those with ties to the top leadership were benefitting disproportionately and unfairly from economic development, resonates powerfully today.”

A Chinese professor in China who prefers anonymity scathingly observes that, “Tiananmen is a turning point for China to develop toward a more corrupted and decayed society, because of the new policy the ruling party took and the lessons the elites and common people learned … making money should be the goal of life, and can be rewarded while pursuing something abstract which might be good for the future can be dangerous and therefore, to most people, absurd.”

Third of three parts in a series on Tiananmen Square. Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.