The number four is considered bad luck in Chinese culture. June 4, 1989 turned into far more than a stroke of bad luck for student protestors in Beijing. From the night of June 3, 1989 until early morning, Chinese soldiers carried out a clearance operation on and near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, a crackdown on what the Chinese Government wrote off as a “counter-revolutionary riot”. The lone defiant man in front of a tank, one of the few pictures to get out to the rest of the world, became a global icon.
Western media reported at the time that the death toll from the resulting massacre ranged from 100 to 3,000, but according to a secret UK diplomatic cable released in 2017, up to 10,000 protesters may have been killed. The event Beijing euphemistically nicknamed “the June Fourth Incident” was sparked by the sudden death of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) general secretary Hu Yaobang, a reformer who was forced to step down two years earlier by Deng Xiaoping.
Up to 100,000 university students and citizens then descended on the square for his funeral, and that gathering transformed into a spontaneous pro-democracy movement demanding government accountability and greater freedoms. Over one million people were occupying Tiananmen Square in a show of solidarity by mid-May, but on June 2, China’s leadership gave the order to send tanks and armed soldiers into the heart of the capital.
It has been twenty-nine years now. Long enough for an entire generation of Chinese to have no living memory of those events. And the Chinese government has done its best to ensure they never remember. It is not mentioned in Chinese state media, and it is not taught in schools. It is also a taboo topic even within some Chinese families — a topic which is completely censored by Beijing and inaccessible for ordinary Chinese people.
Many young Chinese have never heard of the Tiananmen Square massacre until they find themselves studying abroad, outside of the purview of Chinese sensors.
This week, the United States urged China to make a full public account of a crackdown on student-led pro-democracy protests in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 as tens of thousands in Hong Kong held a candlelight vigil for the victims.
In a statement on Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he remembered “the tragic loss of innocent lives”.
“As Liu Xiaobo wrote in his 2010 Nobel Peace Prize speech, delivered in absentia, ‘the ghosts of June 4th have not yet been laid to rest’,” Pompeo said referring to the Chinese dissident who died last year while still in custody. “We join others in the international community in urging the Chinese government to make a full public accounting of those killed, detained or missing,” he added.
In response to Pompeo’s comments, China had lodged “stern representations” with the United States, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Monday. Hua went on to call any mention of the long ago concluded events (in the eyes of her government) by the United States as “gratuitous criticism.”
“The U.S. Secretary of State has absolutely no qualifications to demand the Chinese government do anything,” she added.
Hu Xijin, editor of nationalistic tabloid the Global Times, called Pompeo’s statement a “meaningless stunt” that “represents a wish of the Western world to meddle in China’s political process”.
The Chinese Communist Party no longer mentions the Tiananmen incident to help Chinese society “move on”—moving on apparently means something different to China. The citizens of Hong Kong have not forgotten.
Tens of thousands of people gathered in a downtown park in Hong Kong for an annual public commemoration of the crackdown. They held up candles, sang songs and chanted for democracy and an “end to one-party dictatorship” in China. Amongst those in the crowds were Chinese nationals from the mainland who would otherwise be barred from publicly marking June 4.
On the mainland, the economy has improved. But these 29 years on, democracy remains a fleeting idea for China, perhaps more fleeting than ever.
Featured image: Tiananmen Square by Michael Mandiberg [CC BY-SA 2.0]