Twenty years ago, the world watched as Chinese people stood up for freedom, and the People's Liberation Army responded by sending in tanks and guns. Millions of Chinese took to the streets in 1989 because they wanted a say in the future of their own country. But their dreams were dashed on the night of June 3rd-4th and have never recovered.
Today, young Chinese are quoted as saying they know and care little about events in 1989. This lack of interest is the result of a deliberate effort by the Chinese government to erase memories of June 4th from the public consciousness through a combination of censorship, propaganda, repression and violence. Even privately, most Chinese people no longer discuss what they saw and experienced in 1989; the psychological burden is too much for individuals to carry. People who do speak out, like the Tiananmen Mothers whose children were killed on June 4th, are imprisoned, exiled, threatened or otherwise silenced.
Tiananmen remains a taboo both in the media and in China's new vast cyberspace. Tens of thousands of government censors police the Internet, and webpages that carry any public discussion on this topic are blocked or deleted. Just yesterday, Twitter, Flickr, Youtube, and a long list of other websites were blocked by the Chinese Great Firewall because of the authorities' growing fear and anxiety over any public discussion of Tiananmen as the 20-year anniversary approaches.
In this environment, a recent gathering in Beijing was truly significant. Organizing themselves only by word of mouth (without the use of cell phones or email to avoid government surveillance), nineteen scholars, editors and lawyers held a seminar discussing 20 years since Tiananmen. The seminar, which took place on May 10, Mother's Day, started with a moment of silence, paying tribute to the Tiananmen Mothers. Cui Weiping (崔卫平), professor at the Beijing Film Academy, started her presentation by asking: "What kind of negative impact has it had on our society for us to keep silent and to conceal the event for two decades? How has it harmed the spirit and morality of this nation? What kind of losses have we suffered in our own work and life? Are we still intending to continue this silence?"
The Chinese government has whitewashed the history of 1989 by turning the country's attention to its rapid economic growth, improved living standards, and rising global status. The truth about Tiananmen has been replaced with deception, indifference and cynicism. As the history of the brutality of June 4th is more deeply repressed, society is becoming more violent. "If we do not change and put limits on such massive violence, how are we able to stop the subsequent lesser violence that takes place on every corner and at any time in the country?" Cui Weiping asked. "That kind of blatant violence once took place on this land of ours, and at the "heart" of this land. The beliefs and demands of innocent young people and a large number of the general public were brutally trampled on. And no justifiable assessment has been made of it so far." Cui Weiping and the millions of others who witnessed 1989 and remember the power of both the protests and the massacre, know that Chinese society cannot progress to its full potential without claiming its past.
The Mother's Day gathering was just such an effort, to tell the truth about what happened and to seek ways to move forward. Other brave individuals have also breached the silence in recent years, including Xiao Han, a lecturer at Beijing's University of Politics and Law who last year discussed his experiences in 1989 with his students in class and wrote about it on his blog. Ye Fu, a writer and successful commercial book publisher recently wrote a series of personal essays on his blog revealing the name of a prominent writer who betrayed him in 1989 and got him imprisoned for his activism. Bloggers and other netizens also increasingly use coded language, images, and other tactics to write about the topic under the radar of Internet censors. China's future needs to be built on this piece of history. If the country is to rebuild its moral foundation, it will depend on people like the Tiananmen Mothers, Cui Weiping, Xiao Han and Ye Fu who have the courage to recount the truth of what happened on the night of June 4th. Others who experienced Tiananmen must talk about it, tell their children, remember their history, and thus defeat their own fear, self-deception and cynicism. As Cui Weiping said, "We either have to endure the weakening and impairment of our spirit and soul caused by the awkward situation until we are atrophied and paralyzed, or we stand up, speak the truth, and take back our dignity as human beings."
Confronting the truth of history requires strength and courage. But the energy it unleashes will be powerful enough to make China a truly humane, just, and open society. Without a basic grounding in the truth about Tiananmen, there is no moral foundation for China's rise. Today, even the United States and Europe seek help from China to resolve the economic crisis and global warming. But if a government cannot come to terms with its own history and make peace with its own people, how can the world trust the myth of its "peaceful rise"?