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History Matters: Remembering Tiananmen (and Abu Ghraib)

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Today, on the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, I see article after article explaining exactly how China plans to suppress any description of the massacre that followed the student demonstrations in June of 1989. Growing up as the child of two history teachers, the idea of a nation trying to erase its own history was a horrifying idea, and I could hardly imagine it was possible. It wasn't until I traveled to China that I learned how important it is to fight for history, in China, and at home.

In the summer of 2007, I was given the opportunity to spend two weeks in China through the Student Leaders Exchange program offered by the National Committee on US-China Relations in conjunction with the Presidential Scholars program.

The best aspect of the trip was our housing. Instead of staying in hotels, we stayed with Chinese families whose children were students our own age. The goal of the trip was not only to introduce us to the history of China, but through home stays, to introduce us to the culture of modern China. As we got to know our hosts better, our conversations moved away from discussions of pop culture and more to what we felt to be similarities and differences between our countries. I was particularly sought out for these conversations because our hosts knew that my parents were history professors.

One day in Beijing, Meiying (not her real name) came up to me with a few of the other students and asked, "I know your parents are history teachers. Could you tell me about - I'm not sure what it was - something that happened in 1989? In the summer?"

She didn't say protest. She didn't say massacre. And she didn't say Tiananmen Square...but I was able to figure out what she wanted to know. After my explanation, I asked if her teachers had ever mentioned it. She said no. I let the conversation drop.

Later that day, the girls asked me to describe what people in America think of when they think of China. I talked about the idea of China as a rising superpower and I then I started talking about human rights concerns. Meiying and her friend immediately jumped in, listing the United States's numerous lapses on human rights, including our treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

I agreed with my friends that the United States had made some serious mistakes but that there was a fundamental difference. I went back to the issue of the Tiananmen Square massacre and contrasted it with the shootings of student protestors at Kent State. Instead of talking about differences of scale, I focused on the reaction of our respective nations after the tragedies.

Every United States history textbook I have ever been assigned has included the iconic photo from the shooting. One of the greatest strengths of America is our willingness to recognize our errors and to teach them to our children. And we keep talking to and teaching our fellow citizens and our elected representatives until we make change happen. Even after the change we sought has been achieved (the end of the Vietnam War), we still keep talking, and teaching, and the images and incidents stay in our history textbooks, so that we are, presumably, less likely to make the same mistakes again.

Today, China will be keeping an elaborate, intrusive watch on online chatter, to mute any discussion of Tiananmen, but far more horrifying than this pervasive censorship is the idea that it might not be necessary, that Meiying and her friends might just stop asking people to tell them what happened twenty years ago today on June 4th.

Censorship by omission is even more dangerous than the active censorship of the Chinese government because it leaves no trace. The Great Firewall of China covers up banned websites with false error messages, but websites that are never created, for shame or lack of interest, leave us without a clue to our country's mistakes in the past.

Preserving the ugly parts of our history is always an uphill fight that is never definitively won. Our nation has just finished eight ugly years of human rights abuses, and we must remain ever vigilant, to resist the urge to censor by omission and refuse to allow ourselves the possibility of learning from our mistakes.

In twenty years, will the iconic image of Tiananmen Square be in Chinese textbooks?

Will the iconic image of Abu Ghraib be in ours?

It's up to us.