Collective amnesia prevails in China 25 years after Tiananmen Square

A tourist, right, wears a t-shirt displaying the logo of the Chinese Communist Party as he visits Tiananmen Square in Beijing last month.
(Alexander F. Yuan / Associated Press)

Hu Jia is under house arrest again in Bobo Freedom City, his Beijing apartment complex, as he often is come late spring.

Two plainclothes officers are just downstairs, Hu says, and four or five are at the front gate; the veteran activist is allowed to go out only to see a doctor (twice a month) or to visit his parents (once a week, on Saturday afternoons). But Hu, who took part in the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, still has his phone and is making the most of it, talking a mile a minute to anyone who calls.

Mostly, that’s foreigners. It certainly isn’t anybody from China’s domestic press. The government has long been determined to impose a collective amnesia about the weeks-long pro-democracy demonstrations that shook cities across China 25 years ago, and official media still can make no mention of the deadly crackdown that culminated at Tiananmen Square on June 4.


Even if the events could be discussed, it’s not clear how much most people would care. Hu, though, was in the thick of the action that spring, and he and millions who watched from outside China still have vivid memories of the sudden, violent denouement: the tanks rolling down the Avenue of Eternal Peace, the students running for their lives, the Communist Party declaring the movement a “counterrevolutionary riot.”

For Hu and a fair number of fellow protesters, 1989 remains unfinished business. Fundamentally, the problems they sought to address — official corruption, weak rule of law, the party’s claim to a monopoly on truth and the concentration of power in the hands of a few — continue to vex China.

“I think we need another June 4,” said Hu, who has called for people to mark the anniversary by going to the square and wearing black. “I don’t mean we need another incident full of blood. I mean we need millions of people to go to the streets to demand change.”

But his voice is a lonely one. Even as technology and globalization have helped fuel mass protest movements in other one-party states, in today’s China there seems to be no will — and no way — for anything like a sequel to 1989.

Dramatic improvement in living standards has satisfied some people; others have moved abroad. The government, meanwhile, has done just about everything in its considerable power to tamp down dissent.

“The leaders of the country, they have never forgotten about this incident for one day,” said Zheng Wang, who was a college student in China in 1989 and now directs the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. “No matter what they do, their priority, their focus, is stability.”


In China, engineering “stability” has entailed much more than keeping perceived rabble-rousers like Hu on a short leash, although the Communist Party has become extremely effective at that.

In early May, for example, authorities swooped down on a group of people who had attended a workshop to commemorate “6-4,” as the Tiananmen crackdown is known here. Five people, including Pu Zhiqiang, a well known human rights lawyer, were detained on suspicion of “creating a disturbance in a public place,” even though the workshop was in a private apartment. Under Chinese law, they can be held 37 days before charges are filed.

“The repressive apparatus in China is much more developed than it was in Egypt or Tunisia,” said Perry Link, a China scholar at UC Riverside who had just moved to Beijing when the 1989 movement began to gather steam. “It’s sophisticated, layered and huge, so it’s hard for something like a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ to get going.”

Social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, which have played a role in other protest movements, are banned in China, and the state’s army of Internet censors works hard to quickly scrub the Chinese Web of postings on “sensitive” topics such as Tiananmen. Publishing a book in the mainland on the 1989 protests is unthinkable.

Protests can and do break out over local issues, such as environmental problems, labor disputes and land confiscations. Some academics say more than 200,000 demonstrations drawing more than 50 people occur annually in China, mostly outside Beijing. This spring, tens of thousands of shoe factory workers went on strike in the southern city of Dongguan, and thousands turned out to oppose an incinerator project in Hangzhou, near Shanghai.

“Twenty-five years ago, it was mainly students and intellectuals pursuing liberties or democratic rights. Now ordinary citizens have developed a very strong consciousness,” said Feng Chaoyi, a researcher on China’s activist movements at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia.

But when unrest does break out, local governments usually nip it in the bud, sometimes paying people to go home or bringing in police to disperse the crowd.

Gatherings are occasionally tolerated in Beijing, if the focus is on an external target, such as Japan. But no protests are allowed in high-profile public spaces like Tiananmen, which regularly teem with cameras, plainclothes police officers and uniformed guards.

Rowena Xiaoqing He, who took part in the 1989 protests and is the author of a new book, “Tiananmen Exiles,” sees such cat-and-mouse policing as only a small part of why another mass movement has failed to materialize.

“In 1989, [the Communist Party] tried to lock the doors of major campuses and universities so students would not take to the streets, but they found a way out,” she said. “Post ’89, they found a way to lock their thinking, to lock their minds.”

That “locking,” He said, comes from a powerful cocktail of materialism, cynicism and nationalism, fostered by the party’s headlong embrace of a market economy and a government-sponsored “patriotic education” campaign.

Many people today have neither axes to grind nor ideological agendas. Higher incomes, greater mobility and the breakdown of Mao-era state control of decisions such as where to work and even whom to date have made many people feel less constrained.

Per-capita GDP in China has risen more than 1,800% since 1989, from $307 to over $6,091. The U.S. figure has increased by a relatively modest 130% in that time, to $51,749.

“The Communist Party is more adaptable or flexible than people give it credit for,” said Lijia Zhang, a journalist and author of books including “Socialism Is Great!” “After 1989, on one hand they tightened control; on the other they granted more personal freedom.”


Though recollections of Tiananmen are still strong in the West, the party’s information blackout and a pragmatic collective silence have ensured that many of those born in the last 30 years know few details about what happened, save for the party line.

Change was in the air globally in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell and communism began to collapse in Eastern Europe. The Chinese student protest organizers were certainly aware. In particular, Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost reforms in the Soviet Union were seen by some as a model China could follow.

Today, though, the breakup of the Soviet Union and Russia’s subsequent struggles are more frequently cited by the party, and many ordinary Chinese, as a cautionary tale: There, but for the grace of the party, could have gone China.

After the crackdown, Link said, “the vast majority of intellectuals accepted the deal: Shut up about ideas and values and religion and politics and you can go make money.”

As the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown approached in 2009, 300 Chinese, including many intellectuals, decided they could shut up no more. They signed their name to Charter 08, a document calling for a new constitution, an independent legal system, direct elections, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and other reforms.

“The democratization of Chinese politics can be put off no longer,” the charter said.

Liu Xiaobo, a writer and one of the main authors, was quickly detained and convicted on charges of inciting subversion of state power. In 2010, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His 11-year prison term will end in December 2020.

After fitting in or fighting, fleeing is a third option chosen by increasing numbers of elite Chinese — ironically, those who have gained the most under the current political system and should be the most content. Immigration to Canada, Australia, the United States and other countries has skyrocketed in recent years.

One Chinese Academy of Governance professor estimated last year that there were 1.2 million “naked officials” — party bureaucrats with assets and spouses or children outside China, and who may themselves be looking to leave. Even President Xi Jinping’s daughter enrolled at Harvard University in 2010.

Link believes this exodus demonstrates a lack of confidence in the future in China. “The major trait you see in Chinese mental life, from the top leadership at Zhongnanhai and Xi Jinping all the way down, is insecurity,” he said. “People are rushing around like chickens with their heads cut off [making money], but underneath they don’t feel secure.”


Hu was 15 when he participated in the Tiananmen protests, going to the square often in April and May and joining a crowd that blocked soldiers from penetrating the city. Now 40, he says he remains an optimist, buoyed in part by people using social media to share information. Even though many comments are still deleted by China’s massive censorship apparatus, he said, “the Internet is breaking down the party’s control of the truth.”

Nevertheless, Hu believes that the goal of a freer society “will not be achieved if we just go online and leave our comments.… Final change has to go through street movements or square politics.”

That’s not to say, though, that he wants to see the demise of the Communist Party.

“I hope by 2017 ... we have our own newspapers, our right to organize our own parties; that’s my goal,” Hu said. “By 2020, I wish there will be no one-party rule and people have the basic right to vote. Even if people decide to vote for the Communist Party to be the ruling party again, at least we will have the right to decide who will rule the country.”

Nicole Liu in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.