The whispers of Tiananmen

Although the Chinese government has never publicly addressed the violent suppression of protests in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago, its history has been whispered through generations

Dr Sow Keat Tok, University of Melbourne

Dr Sow Keat Tok

Published 4 June 2019

Walking down Chang’an Avenue in modern Beijing, you would be forgiven for not remembering the fateful day of 4th June 1989. It is a day that has come down in our collective memory as one that saw China’s experiment with liberalism come to a startling, bloody halt.

In 1989, the main student district in Beijing’s north-west was a hotbed of political action, that then spilled out onto the streets. In May, an estimated million people rallied in Tiananmen Square demanding democratic reform.

A sea of student protesters gathers in Tiananmen Square in May 1989. Picture: Getty Images

But, after initially taking no action against the protests, the government cracked down, declaring martial law. And on 4th June, troops opened fire on the protestors in an attempt to regain control.

China’s government has never revealed how many died in June 1989, but some human rights’ groups and political activists estimate the figure is in the thousands.

And those ghosts of Tiananmen still haunt us thirty years later.

Over the years, not one anniversary has gone by without Beijing going into lockdown and state security services sweeping up known activists. This is all done on the pretext of protecting the “China dream” – an idea that China has risen out of the ashes of history to regain its rightful place in the world.

It’s a visionary discourse forwarded by the most powerful man in China today, State President Xi Jinping.

Underlining this notion is a sense of national strength and confidence – Xi’s vision for a China of tomorrow. It’s a rendering of history that sees the long, but inevitable, elevation of a proud people who have seen more than a century of struggle against foreign encroachment and internal strife.

President Xi calls it “national rejuvenation”, and the principle’s main cheerleader is undoubtedly the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Arguably, “rejuvenation” is a project not just about the present and the future, but the past as well.

Buses and vehicles burn as pro-democracy demonstrators retreat down Changan Avenue on June 4, 1989. Picture: Getty Images

If we follow this thinking, there must be an optimal time in history to return to as part of this rejuvenation. And then there’s the question: rejuvenation from what?

Already, the Communist Party has been working in earnest to mould a history that fits this purpose. This version of the past has the CCP claiming its rightful place at the reins of power as the vanguard that brought about the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

And this interpretation of China’s history is carefully stage-managed.

From the splendour of the Han and Tang dynasties when traders of the East and West plodded the Silk Road, to the humiliation and resilience of the Chinese people during the age of imperialism and Japanese occupation, it’s all part of China’s move to ‘reform’ its official history to bolster popular support for the CCP under Xi Jinping’s stewardship.

The recent Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations and Asian Cultural Carnival held in Beijing are no mere footnotes, but clear efforts in this great history project to link China back into the world—with the CCP at the helm.

The same note was played as the CCP celebrated the 40th year of China’s reform and opening up late last year. China’s miraculous economic and technological achievements glossed over its social and political tensions, and predictably, there was no mention of Tiananmen whatsoever.

But how long can this go on?

Cyclists stop to look at bicycles flattened by the Chinese army tanks in May 1989. Picture: Getty Images

Recently, I conducted several study interviews with mainland Chinese students, most born in the 1990s, and a certain amnesia pervades.

Less than half were familiar about the events of 4th June and most were more than willing to accept the version in their textbooks which suggest a scale of unrest that China could ill-afford in its pursuit of greatness. It is all part of the demand to adapt the official historical narratives to suit the needs of the CCP.

But many of these students went away with their curiosity stoked to find out more on their own. Only once they’d done some reading did they realise why their parents have for so long spoken in hushed, secretive tones among themselves, unwilling to share with their children.

To the handful I spoke to, my questions have informed their curiosity. For millions of others, globalisation and the Internet have ensured that the Tiananmen legacy persists, in one form or another.

In other words, the events of Tiananmen in 1989 have lived on, sustained by a structure of networked memories both outside and inside China, passed on from one generation to another by word-of-mouth.

While these words aren’t out there in public, the CCP can’t prevent what is carried in the minds of individuals and communities.

People hold candles during the commemoration of the Tiananmen Square victims in Hong Kong on June 4, 2016. Picture: Getty Images

Zhou Enlai, the late premier and statesman of the CCP, mused in 1972 that the effects of the French Revolution were “too early to say”. It’s often thought, although disputed, that he was referring to the significance of the French Revolution of 1789, some 200 years earlier.

The same could be said of the events of 1989 in Tiananmen Square.

Thirty years have passed without the party directly addressing the events that culminated in that tragic night. It may well take another 30 years, if ever, for the party to change its mind. But even if it’s whispered behind closed doors, Tiananmen will never be forgotten.

Banner: Getty Images

Find out more about research in this faculty


Content Card Slider

Content Card Slider

Subscribe for your weekly email digest

By subscribing, you agree to our

Acknowledgement of country

We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the Traditional Owners of the unceded lands on which we work, learn and live. We pay respect to Elders past, present and future, and acknowledge the importance of Indigenous knowledge in the Academy.

Read about our Indigenous priorities
Phone: 13 MELB (13 6352) | International: +61 3 9035 5511The University of Melbourne ABN: 84 002 705 224CRICOS Provider Code: 00116K (visa information)