Forgetting June 4th

In a year fraught with sensitive Chinese anniversaries, June 4th is by far the most resonant in the United States. I was eight years old when Hu Yaobang, a former Communist Party secretary and advocate of political reform that had fallen from grace a year earlier, died. Students gathered in Tiananmen to mourn and stayed to protest. I remember hearing about hunger strikes and not knowing what they were. I remember watching on the news as the June 4th crackdown proceeded and protesters fled the capital city. In Shanghai, none of my Chinese friends share these memories.

June 4th, for many Shanghainese people my age, carries only passing significance. School textbooks dedicate short passages to a student gathering that got out of control. The memory gap is so definite that one friend, after helping me translate an old recording on the topic, turned to me in shock and asked, "People got shot?" She came back a few days later, after doing some research and added, "Deng Xiaoping must not have known it was happening."

This blank spot in history is eerie when you run into it in friends. It has also been well talked-over on the internet leading up to the 20th anniversary of the crackdown. Yu Hua, the Beijing-based author of To Live and Brothers, wrote about his experience during Tiananmen Square in a recent NYT Op-Ed, describing the news coverage in the days that followed.

Every day the television repeatedly broadcast shots of students on the wanted list being taken into custody. Far from home, in my cheerless hotel room, I saw the despairing looks on the faces of the captured students and heard the crowing of the news announcers, and a chill went down my spine.

Then one day, the picture on my TV screen changed completely. The images of detained suspects were replaced by scenes of prosperity throughout the motherland. The announcer switched from passionately denouncing the crimes of the captured students to cheerfully lauding our nation's progress.

After this, the government was able, for many people, to simply erase the incident. The picture of tanks rolling down city streets is really not a part of the image China has been crafting in the last 20 years. So, censored in the media and left out of official histories, there has been little to keep memory of Tiananmen Square going. On top of that, times have changed so quickly, that a group of student protestors in 1989 hardly seem relevant to the lives of China's younger generations -- kids born after 1980 who enjoy a greatly expanded set of freedoms.

Media silence went a long way in dulling the memory of June 4th in China. Conversely, the day has earned infamy in the U.S. partly due to a twist of media fate. A visit from Gorbachev coincided with the student protests and many foreign journalists found that they had arrived in Beijing for one story and stumbled upon another. They stayed on after Gorbachev left and were there to film and photograph the incident. It's worth mentioning that China was not the only country cracking down on protestors in 1989. At a China-focused blog called the Black and White Cat, one recent post pointed out that a crackdown in Venezuela the same year has been largely forgotten in the West.

In China, there have been calls for the Chinese government to shine light on the events of June 4th, and recently the party-affilliated Global Times let loose an article on the changing intellectual climate that touched on the 1989 incident. "After 1989, intellectuals became "more moderate and rational," the article quotes Zhang Liping, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, as saying. "People realized that China would not change overnight."

In general, however, officials have remained stubbornly tight-lipped. Their silence belies the continuing significance of Tiananmen, even in the face of mass forgetfulness. At the China Media Project, David Bandurski points out that "stability preservation" has become the buzzword of 2009 in Mainland China. "Clearly, officials at every level are under the strictest orders to take the anniversary very seriously," he writes, looking at a Beijing Daily article about Liu Qi, Beijing's party secretary, conducting an inspection of "stability preservation work" around Peking University and Tiananmen Square.

"One must wonder," Bandurski says. "Why is a generation of ostensibly indifferent university students of such concern to Beijing's party secretary?"