Column: Forgetting Tiananmen
BEIJING — The young man approached with an air of furtive urgency, covering his mouth with his hand. “Please can you tell me,” he asked, “what happened in 1989?”
In China, there is a single answer to that question: the Tiananmen Square massacre, 25 years ago next week. The quarter-century mark is not auspicious in Chinese culture, but the date itself has acquired iconic significance: 6/4 is to China what 9/11 is to the United States.
Except that in place of public commemoration in China, there is careful whispering and sly references to troops firing on unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators.
And, an even more unsettling exception: As the young man’s question illustrated, a new generation remains ignorant, uninterested or both about Tiananmen. China has become, in the title of a new book by National Public Radio reporter Louisa Lim, “The People’s Republic of Amnesia.”
For Americans, the image of the unknown young man standing in front of a menacing tank is seared into memory or — for the post-Tiananmen generation — taught as a central moment in modern Chinese history.
Yet for many Chinese, as became clear on a trip here sponsored by the Committee of 100, a U.S. nonprofit dedicated to promoting mutual understanding, the topic remains best unmentioned, if not unknown. Only the bravest teachers broach it, and then most likely as a cautionary tale of popular protest that unfolded too fervently, too soon.
The horrors of the Cultural Revolution have become safe ground for public discussion. “Coming Home,” a new film by Zhang Yimou, who directed the 2008 Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, tells the story of a professor sent away for “re-education” and a family destroyed.
The events of 1989, by contrast, remain distinctly off-limits. Imagine a comparable moment of searing national shame — Kent State, Watergate, Abu Ghraib — effectively banished from public discussion.
It would be most comfortable, from a Western perspective, to understand this phenomenon in China as a brutal and ultimately self-defeating reflection of government censorship and intimidation.
Certainly, suppression of free speech plays a significant role. Five years ago, as the 20th anniversary neared, dissidents were detained, foreign newspapers had pages excised, television screens went strategically dark, and the plug was pulled on Internet sites.
Today, if anything, the government is even more heavy-handed; recent bombings in the western province of Xinjiang have only added to the imperative to stifle dissent.
Still, the “Great Firewall,” China’s effort to censor the Internet, is rather easily breached, especially by a techno-savvy young generation adept at enlisting virtual private networks to evade official blockages. Young people determined to discover the events of 6/4 can find a workaround.
But that assumes a widespread discontent with the free-speech status quo that instead seems disconcertingly muted.
Eric Li, a Shanghai-based 46-year-old venture capitalist who watched the protests from afar, as a Berkeley undergraduate — he went on to work for Ross Perot and earn a Stanford MBA — expressed undisguised relief at the crackdown, notwithstanding the “tragic” loss of life. Li echoes the official view that letting the protests continue would have jeopardized governmental stability and imperiled an economic rise that has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty.
“I look at what happened” in Egypt and Ukraine “and think, ‘Thank heaven it didn’t succeed here,’” Li said in an interview.
Many younger Chinese express a similar tolerance. Amanda, a graduate student, described being “shocked” on seeing a video of Tiananmen in a constitutional law class, her first exposure to the protests. The professor’s message? “It is difficult to change the situation of China.” Others questioned whether photos had been doctored, or authorities forced to act only after negotiations failed.
This has become a privileged, me-first generation of “little emperors” and empresses, only children coddled by parents and grandparents. Even with rising tensions over China’s astonishing income inequality and anxiety over whether those less well-connected will be able to nab their share, this new cohort enjoys a standard of living unimaginable at the time of Tiananmen.
They are, according to pollsters, particularly nationalistic — more worked up over Japan’s wartime atrocities and perceived territorial incursions than over issues of personal freedom, or, perhaps more threatening to Chinese leaders, unrest over rampant corruption and pollution.
For them, the explosion of wealth often seems worth the price of studied ignorance about Tiananmen. Hence the chilling question: If those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, what becomes of those who never knew the past at all?
Ruth Marcus’ email address is email@example.com.