Source: NYT (6/3/19)
Thirty Years After Tiananmen: Someone Always Remembers
阅读简体中文版 | 閱讀繁體中文版
How people in China keep the memory of the massacre alive despite the government’s efforts to make them forget.
By Ian Johnson
BEIJING — In China, the Tiananmen Square massacre is not taught in any textbook, aired on any television channel or marked by any monument. But 30 years on, it remains vivid in the subconscious of the People’s Republic. Why?
This is a question that has followed me since coming to China as a reporter in 1994, shortly after the fifth anniversary of what is known here simply by two numbers, 6/4, shorthand for the date of the crackdown on June 4, 1989. Late the night before and early that morning, government soldiers fought their way into downtown Beijing, using tanks, armored personnel carriers and live ammunition. Their target: Tiananmen Square, where peaceful protesters had been camped out for nearly two months, giving voice to many people’s hopes for a more open society.
Since then, the government has tried its best to make 6/4 a non-date. Every year, in the month or two leading up to the day, it rounds up dissidents, harasses victims’ relatives, silences journalists and stations soldiers on street corners. If pushed to explain its position in 1989, the government argues that the students were radicals who had to be cleared away and that any violence was initiated by them or their defenders, who attacked soldiers, burned tanks and created chaos.
That is, of course, a classic blame-the-victim argument — hardly credible and slightly repulsive. But on some level it has taken hold. As the journalist Louisa Lim describes in her 2014 book, “The People’s Republic of Amnesia,” most Chinese people are unaware of the massacre, and among those who know of it, some see it as a regrettable, embarrassing outlier — perhaps as some Americans might see the My Lai massacre in South Vietnam in 1968.
And yet the memory of that night in Beijing three decades ago hasn’t died away. Many people feel a sense of outrage: There was no justification for using armed soldiers, and decades of supercharged economic growth will not wash away the stain left by that reckless decision, not until there is some sort of apology or reckoning.
This view is not limited to a few dissidents or foreign scholars, people out to make China look bad or who just can’t let bygones be bygones. The memory of Tiananmen is also being kept alive by people in China who believe that a government that uses force to stay in power is illegitimate.
Many are expressing their views through a new trend: unofficial history. People who aren’t professional historians have taken it upon themselves to preserve the memories of the country’s many killings, famines, uprisings and government crackdowns — 6/4 is just one. These are writers, filmmakers, poets, artists, songwriters and public intellectuals. Some create on the margins of society, their works immediately banned and often only shown or published abroad. Others have one foot in the mainstream and try to spread their ideas in China, typically through social media.
In recent years, I’ve written about several of these people, such as the artist Hu Jie or the scholar Ai Xiaoming, who have made groundbreaking documentaries on political persecution. Others, like Guo Yuhua, a sociology professor at Tsinghua University, or Jiang Xue, an investigative journalist, write on social media about government expropriation of farmers’ land or the plight of China’s persecuted human rights lawyers. Many of their posts and accounts are blocked, but they often manage to start new ones and spread their message.
In his new book, “Minjian: The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectuals,” the French historian Sebastian Veg describes these 21st-century amateur activists. (“Minjian” means “among the people.”) Mr. Veg shows how Tiananmen caused a historic rift. In imperial China and during the first 40 years of Communist rule, intellectuals defined themselves in relation to the state, sometimes working heroically against it but always while remaining dependent on it in some way.
Minjian historians are less elitist. They earn their own money or benefit from independent think tanks or patrons, and they write about local or specific subjects: migrant workers, victims of the Mao era, targets of religious persecution, dispossessed farmers — “the silent majority,” according to the novelist Wang Xiaobo.
These thinkers are aided by technology. Bill Clinton famously quipped that trying to control the internet was like trying to “nail Jell-O to the wall,” but China, like many other countries, has controlled it to some extent. Yet technology does play a huge role in the persistence of memory. It’s through digitized movie cameras that Mr. Hu and Ms. Ai can make their documentary films at affordable prices, and through the Web that they can upload them. Those films may be blocked in China, but they are accessible to the tens of millions of Chinese thought to use VPN software to bypass government controls.
Simpler technologies are also extremely effective. Remembrance, an independent history magazine, has published widely on some of the most sensitive issues in recent Chinese history using a modern form of samizdat. Its articles are collated into a PDF and emailed to friends and supporters. They, in turn, forward the document by email or via messaging services like WeChat. Issues are archived on websites overseas, accessible to anyone in China with a VPN.
As for Tiananmen, the grass-roots historian Liao Yiwu has just published in English a book of interviews, “Bullets and Opium: Real-Life Stories of China After the Tiananmen Square Massacre,” that challenges how we think of those events. (I wrote the introduction.) While the protests are often portrayed as a quixotic battle by romantic students, Mr. Liao shows that it was working-class Beijingers who made the supreme sacrifice: throwing their bodies in front of the tanks to protect the students and the cause they represented.
On Friday, the Hong Kong-based New Century Press published unseen top-secret documents of a key meeting of the Chinese Communist Party that took place two weeks after the massacre. The documents show how top officials groveled before the supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, promising to support his decision to use force and to depose Zhao Ziyang, a moderate leader.
History is also written with the smallest of gestures. Every spring I make a small trip to the Babaoshan cemetery in the western suburbs of Beijing to pay respects to two victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre: Wu Xiangdong, a 21-year-old fatally shot by troops on the night of June 3-4, 1989, and his father Wu Xuehan, who died of grief six years later.
I never met them, but I knew the vivacious Xu Jue, Xiangdong’s mother and Xuehan’s wife. The police would sometimes escort her to the cemetery, sometimes try to prevent her from making the journey at all. She usually succeeded and in front of her husband’s grave would always place 27 flowers.
Four lines of the poem inscribed on the back of Xuehan’s tombstone explain, in a code of sorts, both the cause of his death and Xu Jue’s ritual:
Eight calla lilies
Nine yellow chrysanthemums
Six white tulips
Four red roses
Eight, nine, six, four. Year, month, day. June 4, 1989.
Two years ago, Ms. Xu died of cancer, at 77. Both years since, I’ve made the trip to the graves, thinking someone ought to put out the flowers. Each time, the 27 flowers were already there, tied in a neat bundle. Someone remembered. Someone always remembers.
Ian Johnson, a Beijing-based writer, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his China coverage. His most recent book is “The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao.”