Fahrenheit 1989 China Erases Memories of Tiananmen

Twenty-five years ago, the Chinese army violently suppressed protests on Tiananmen Square. To this day, Beijing uses pressure, censorship and money to stifle all attempts to commemorate the seminal incident in an up-and-coming China.


By in Beijing

Hu Yaobang, 73, a reformer and one of the few politicians the Chinese have ever genuinely worshiped, died on April 15, 1989. As the party leaders who had toppled him from his position as general secretary two years earlier carried him to his grave, some 100,000 students gathered on Tiananmen Square and demanded Hu's rehabilitation. The incident marked the beginning of the revolutionary events of 1989 in faraway Beijing.

On the evening after Hu's death, his son asked his friend Zhang Lifan, a historian, to document the coming days and weeks. He told Zhang that members of the Hu family were too exhausted to do it themselves.

Today Zhang, who was 38 at the time, is one of China's leading intellectuals. He had 300,000 followers until last November, when censors shut down his blog. Zhang is a tall, kind and playful, 63-year-old man. When he is searching for a word or a memory, he tilts his head to one side and presses his left hand to his forehead. He wears a silver skull ring, a memento mori given to him by a Buddhist monk.

In the weeks following April 15, 1989, Zhang would become far more deeply involved in the events that were unfolding than he might have suspected on the evening after Hu Yaobang's death. He has waited almost a quarter of a century to publish part of his memoirs and talk about his experiences publicly.

"I felt cold on the morning of the funeral," he says. "There were thousands of demonstrators outside, while inside the building supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, that 84-year-old who had had his hair dyed once again, was stomping around like some angry young man. I was standing right next to him. He was determined and ready for a fight."

In the spring of 1989 Deng, who had fallen out of favor twice during the Cultural Revolution, saw his life's work being threatened: the economic opening of China under party dominance. "He knew that he would not experience a third comeback," says Zhang. "That fear led to the suppression of the unrest on Tiananmen."

'Enforced Amnesia'

During the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, tens of thousands of academics, artists and writers were banished or even beaten to death. "I knew what sort of trouble words could get me into," says Zhang, "and I had stopped keeping a diary years earlier." Nevertheless, he agreed to accept the request from Hu's family. "Historians rarely have the opportunity to witness an event that shapes history."

It was indeed an event that made history. Europe is marking the 25th anniversary of an important turning point in 2014. While Germany commemorates the fall of the Berlin Wall, the countries of the former Eastern bloc are celebrating their liberation from communism. But China's leaders see no reason to commemorate the protests that began at their palace gates and swept into the streets for the first time in 1989. The country's name still identifies China as a people's republic today, and according to its history books, nothing of any significance happened there 25 years ago. When the number "1989" is typed into Baidu Baike, a Chinese version of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, one of the responses reads: "1989 is the number between 1988 and 1990."

The leadership isn't just ignoring an anniversary. In fact, it has erased the incident from the collective memory, despite its profound impact on China's current intellectual elite. Sinologist Frank Dikötter describes the government's policy as "enforced amnesia". Authoritarian countries, of course, have a habit of dismissing historic facts.

Ironically, though, China's Communist Party takes its version of history very seriously. Party officials constantly invoke history in their speeches, and since 1989 dozens of professorships in history have been established, days of remembrance have been introduced and countless conferences have been held. "To forget history is treachery," states an anthology of contributions to one of these conferences.

Nevertheless, the party quashes any attempt to force it to face up to its own history, one that includes the hundreds killed in the Tiananmen massacre and the millions who died in mass campaigns during the years under former leader Mao Zedong through the land reform, the "Giant Leap Forward" and the Cultural Revolution.

Unparalleled Negation

Even among authoritarian countries, China's negation of its own contemporary history is historically unparalleled. In the 25 years since Tiananmen, the country has not only taken off economically, but has also experienced a cultural explosion. And yet China's publishing houses and film studios, along with its universities, think tanks, museums and Internet companies, are producing culture devoid of much of its own history. China's version of Ray Bradbury's dystopian novel "Fahrenheit 451" could very well be called Fahrenheit 1989, a society in which the regime has deleted all unpleasant memories, so that millions of young Chinese today have no idea what happened on Tiananmen Square.

A week after the memorial service for Hu Yaobang, Zhang Lifan received a second request, this time from the government. Then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had been invited to visit Beijing, but the regime didn't want his reception to be tainted by thousands of people protesting outside. Men like Zhang, a lecturer at the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences at the time, knew the students. The government asked him to serve as an intermediary.

"Weeks earlier, I had met and debated with students in a student apartment in Dasuzhou Alley," says Zhang. On a day in May, 25 years later, he and his wife are searching for the apartment near Tiananmen where he met with the students. But their search is unsuccessful. Like most buildings near the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen Gate), those in Dasuzhou Alley are now occupied by party officials and their families. There are high walls, imposing portals and security cameras everywhere. When Zhang stops walking for a moment and points to where the apartment was, a couple emerges from a crowd of tourists and photographs him. It's obvious that they are plainclothes agents.

Zhang, undeterred, continues his account: "I spent days rushing back and forth between Tiananmen Square and the office of the United Work Front, which was supposed to communicate with the students. I didn't get much sleep."

Division in Both Camps

He noticed signs of divisions in both camps from the very beginning, says Zhang. In the government, he explains, the reformers were losing ground to the hawks. Among the students, the thousands of new demonstrators arriving every day were applying growing pressure on the core group, which had persevered on Tiananmen Square from the beginning and was willing to negotiate a withdrawal.

Shortly before martial law was imposed, Zhang guided one of the government's chief negotiators through the checkpoints to the demonstrators' main tent.

"We all sat on the ground, and one of the student leaders introduced the chief of the delegation to his people. 'This here is Yan Mingfu of the Workers' Front,' he said, 'a good man from the system. Listen to what he has to say, and give the reformers a chance.' But then Yan Mingfu kicked him. It was already dangerous at the time to be called a 'reformer'."

On the next day, May 19, the demonstrators voted on a bus whether to clear the square. The outcome was negative. "I ran over to the official in charge. He was surprised, because he thought the government had been given different signals," says Zhang. That evening, the students requested another meeting with the government, and Zhang took them to see the official. "The tone had changed radically within a few hours. Now the official asked: 'What else is there to discuss? Go back and see what's on TV."

Premier Li Peng had gone on television to declare martial law. "That put an end to my mission," says Zhang. "I was disappointed by both sides, because I knew what a historic opportunity had now been lost."

Immediate Efforts to Obfuscate the Massacre

On the night of June 3, 1989, the army advanced on Tiananmen Square. Hundreds of protestors who couldn't have imagined that the soldiers would obey orders to open fire died in Beijing, and hundreds more were killed outside the capital. The exact death toll is unknown to this day. Efforts to obfuscate the massacre began immediately after it had occurred.

Many of the prominent student leaders managed to flee abroad. Those demonstrators who were arrested disappeared into prisons for months or even years, and many were sentenced to death. Those who publicly declared their solidarity with the protestors, like a few prominent journalists, were demoted or fired. Party leader Zhao Ziyang who, as Zhang later discovered, had requested his and other academics' assistance, was deposed and placed under house arrest. He died in 2005.

But the determining factor in the disappearance of the Tiananmen massacre from China's public memory was the way the regime dealt with the hundreds of thousands of sympathizers in Chinese schools and universities -- the 1989 generation, which now forms the core of China as a cultural nation.

"Sometime that fall, we were summoned by the academy," says Zhang. "We were told to sit in a circle and deliver our reports. When it was my turn, they said: 'Comrade Zhang Lifan! What have you done?' In response, I asked: 'Is that a question or an order?' It was an order, and of course I had done more than anyone else."

Life after Tiananmen

He says he received daily visits from the police after that. The interrogations became increasingly harsh, and Zhang feared that he would be arrested any day. "Instead, the mood suddenly shifted. University grants and conference and research budgets increased, and academia blossomed," he recalls.

Throughout the country, historians began writing entire libraries full of essays and books about China's humiliation in the opium wars, the history of Marxism and the rise of the Chinese nation under the Communist Party. "Most of its was completely worthless from an academic standpoint, and it didn't hold up as a historical narrative, either."

Zhang continued to work for a period of time. "I still remember what I said in parting: You and I, we no longer belong in the same wok. We no longer fit together." Since then, he has been writing his blog and occasionally publishing a book or an essay, such as his memories of the funeral of Hu Yaobang published last year in the magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu, which prompted complaints to the editors by government censors. "Those who do not participate in writing the official account of this country's history have to think very carefully about what they are writing and how much of a risk they are taking," says Zhang.

Since the suppression of the Tiananmen uprising, the power of the Communist Party has relied on four pillars, writes China expert Minxin Pei: robust growth, sophisticated repression, state-sponsored nationalism and co-opting of social elites.

China's intellectuals play a key role in this power structure, voluntarily or involuntarily. They benefit from the economic boom more than most Chinese, and they are both victims of the censorship and surveillance state and authors of a powerful account of the greatness of the nation, the rise of the party and victory over China's enemies -- an account that excludes all mention of the disasters and mountains of bodies littering the country's history.

Oliver Stone: Deal with Your History

In mid-April, on the 25th anniversary of the death of reformer Hu Yaobang, Beijing's cultural establishment listened to what one of the biggest fans of China among the West's creative classes, the history-obsessed US director Oliver Stone, had to say. He had been invited to speak about cooperation between Hollywood and the Chinese film industry at the Beijing International Film Festival.

Stone's message was unheard of, at least publicly. Before any meaningful cooperation between Hollywood and China's studios could take place, he said, the country would have to finally come to terms with its historical material. "Mao Zedong has been lionized in dozens and dozens of Chinese films, but never criticized," he told them. "It's about time. You got to make a movie about Mao, about the Cultural Revolution. You do that, you open up, you stir the waters and you allow true creativity to emerge in this country."

He could understand Beijing's studio heads avoiding subjects like Tibet or unrest in the Xinjiang region, he said. "But not your history, for Christ's sake."

The audience applauded.

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freedomlover 06/06/2014
1. Why Not America
I & my colleague Xining witnessed the worst of the Tienanmen Massacre at Muxidi, 4 clicks west of the square. This is documented Voice of America's Deputy Director on pages 24 & 25 of his history, Voice of America, A History". Xining & I witnessed the massacre of thousands from beneath the Muxidi bridge. We loaded the crushed bodies on bicycle carts. VOA Bureau Chief Al Pessin recorded my account, had it translated into Mandarin and broadcast it repeatedly throughout the country. I ended my report by saying that Deng Zhao Ping and Li Pung were war criminals. As a consequence Pessin was expelled unceremoniously from China. The Plaza, a bilingual Japanese magazine published the most grisly portion of my account. This was a horrible genocide, but was it worse that what I witnessed as a Refugee Adviser of US AID Vietnam's Mekong Delta. Countless times I saw my refugees, poor simple peasants, roasted alive by Napalm & white phosphorus. I still smell the odor of roasted human flesh. We Americans slaughtered three & a half million Vietnamese. Isn't this a graver crime? Why is nothing ever said about it?
zhangzhi89 06/09/2014
2. lies, lies, all lies
all come from CIA.
dtechba 06/10/2014
3. False statistics
People come on these boards and throw out numbers and make claims with no basis in reality. The highest published total number of deaths caused by the Vietnam War in both the north and south is less than 1 million. That is the high estimate mind you and consists mostly of deaths caused by Vietnamese forces against each other. Then you have someone come on here and toss out a figure of 3.5 million with no basis in reality. Vietnam was no good deed but the sensationalist demagoguery of the self righteous like the earlier post is just ridiculous and does nothing to further the pursuit of peace. There is no black and white in the world and till you learn that and work within reality you will never get anything done.
Finbarr 06/11/2014
4. It just history
An observation attributed to Orwell: Who controls the past, controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.
satyaban 06/11/2014
5. Muddied waters.
This has nothing to do with Viet Nam so don't muddy the water. The point is that China killed its own citizens and has been denying the truth from its citizens since the event. Anyone who respects freedom for the individual and freedom for all will recognize this as the criminal act and oppression that it is.
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