Remembering Tiananmen, 25 years on

A quarter of a century after the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square, China is yet to face up to this dark period of its history.

At Sydney’s White Rabbit contemporary Chinese art gallery, there is a large oil-on-canvas painting called Dawn-Light Fog, which depicts the fateful night on June 4, 1989 when the Communist Party opened fire on student protestors.

The whited-out canvas tries to capture one of the most famous scenes of the protest, when battle tanks rolled down the Chang’an Dajie, or the avenue of eternal peace. But the objects, including tanks and people, are all but invisible -- even from a short distance -- and the notorious line of tanks fades into a few faint brush strokes.

This is precisely the effect the artist wants to show. One of the most defining moments of Chinese history has not been squarely faced in China and the event and its enormous consequences are fast fading from people’s memories.

The artist, Zhou Zixi, who was in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square during the June 1989 massacre, said “After a long time has passed, when we look back down the road we’ve travelled, our suffering, no matter how great, becomes blurry and distant. Like ink spilled over a book, a sudden disaster gradually transforms into a permeating sadness.”

Just days before the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, Chinese authorities are leaving nothing to chance. Prominent Chinese-Australian artist Guo Jian, who was a hunger striker 25 years ago, has been detained after he appeared in a Financial Times article about the massacre.

He told the Financial Times, “I didn’t believe it, even though I had been a soldier. In the army I had never seen that sort of violence. Then I saw the tracers and people falling around me -- they were just gone. I suddenly realised, shit, this was war.”

China University of Political Science and Law is also organising a compulsory study tour for all foreign students on June 3rd and 4th. The notice says, “All foreign students have to attend this study tour!”

The authorities in Beijing are still nervous about an event that happened a quarter of a century ago. Yet at the same time they have been highly effective in erasing the massacre from the Chinese popular memory. When American journalist Louisa Lim showed students an iconic photo of the tank man, a brave citizen who defied a column of tanks, only 15 out of 100 recognised the photo.

Lim writes in her new book, The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, that a new generation of young Chinese knows little of what happened and appears not to care. Even among Chinese students studying abroad, few have shown any interest in learning about their uncensored history.

Many young Chinese have grown up to believe that the Tiananmen massacre was necessary to maintain stability in the country and thus pave the way for China’s economic prosperity. It was the line used by the architect of the crackdown -- Deng Xiaoping, who told a visiting American physicist “if the rebels had had their way, there would have been a civil war”.

But many of the social ills that prompted tens of thousands of students to occupy Tiananmen Square are still with us today -- corruption, inequality and one party rule. Corruption and inequality have gotten much worse over time as material wealth has improved.

The Communist Party, which is very agile in adapting itself to new circumstances, is acutely aware of its precarious situation in the country. China’s internal security budget is in fact larger than its much-hyped defence spending. The party maintains a vast network of cops, censors and spies to keep the population in check.

The new party boss Xi Jinping, who has been in power for more than a year now, has launched an unprecedented crackdown on corruption to offer the party a chance of redemption in the face of increasing public displeasure with endemic graft.

A quarter of a century after the bloody event, Chinese leaders are still unable to face up to their decision to use tanks to quell unarmed students and workers. Though a new generation of young Chinese has grown up with historical amnesia, the seeds of discontent are still everywhere and they only need the right conditions to germinate, namely a major economic downturn.

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