The Magazine

The Unknown Massacre

Beijing is making a mistake by suppressing the truth about Tiananmen.

Jun 8, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 36 • By GORDON G. CHANG
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In 1996, Min, then in her mid-20s, expressed disbelief when she first heard of the massacre in Tiananmen Square. The tragedy had come up in a casual dinner conversation I was having in her hometown of Shanghai with her and Chris, her American boyfriend. I was taken aback that anyone could have lived in a major city in China during the turmoil of 1989 and not known that a million people had gathered in the spiritual heart of the country, that the vicious 27th Army had shot its way through the streets of Beijing on the night of June 3, and that soldiers had reclaimed the square by morning after perhaps 3,000 had been killed. There were at the time democracy protests and activities in 371 cities in China, including big rallies in Min's Shanghai.

Those who lived through the Beijing Spring of 1989 will never forget the exhilaration of gathering in the square and the horror of the murderous crackdown, but the regime can for the most part keep them silent. But only a part of the nation has been scarred. For China's young, Tiananmen never happened.

For 20 years, China's Communist party has resorted to euphemisms when it has had to talk about Tiananmen, delicately referring to the slaughter as "the event that happened in the late 1980s of last century" or more simply as "that 1989 affair." For the most part, it has been able to prevent an open discussion of the matter inside China. Textbooks don't mention it, teachers don't teach it, and the state media go out of their way to ignore it. Mainland chat rooms are scrubbed of references to the killings, and Chinese search engines block Tiananmen articles. Censors are quick to delete the number "64," the code the Chinese have developed for referring to the events of June 4.

The erasure of history can never be completely successful, of course. In June 2007, for instance, a paper in the southwestern city of Chengdu ran a classified ad commemorating the mothers of victims of the massacre. The clerk accepted the ad because she had never heard of the incident. Ultimately, three editors were fired.

Eventually people find out and become disillusioned with their government, especially because they realize they can learn the truth about their country only from foreigners. And ignorance of Tiananmen might be more dangerous to the regime than full knowledge of it. Because they don't know all that occurred in 1989, younger Chinese view their government as unthreatening. "The only thing I can remember about June 4 is watching television and hearing that riot police had died," said Lu Jing, who was six at the time of the massacre, to an Agence France-Presse reporter. "I don't believe any students died. China in this respect is democratic as China wouldn't hurt its own people."

As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has noted, the Chinese don't take to the streets when they are angry. They do so when they think they can get away with it. "China has always operated to some degree on fear, and that fear is now eroding," he wrote in 2003. The erosion has progressed so far that the essential lesson Deng Xiaoping sought to instill in 1989--that the Communist party is willing to resort to deadly violence on a mass scale--has been largely lost. Earlier this month, I was talking to a prominent businessman in his spacious office in a Shanghai skyscraper, and he acknowledged how much China had changed in the last 20 years. "No one fears the government any more," he noted with a broad smile.

And why should they? There's unimaginable societal change happening at speed. The People's Republic is beginning to take on the look, and even some of the feel, of the modern world. In short, China looks less Chinese, and less authoritarian as well.

Ignorance of 1989 is contributing to the perception of a freer society among the youngest--and most volatile--elements of the population. They have known nothing but prosperity and take it for granted. As the economy stumbles--and the country has entered a period of no or slow growth that could last years--China's supposedly apathetic generation could find cause for political activism, just as the young did in the 1980s. Young Chinese believe they have rights and the space to exercise them, and Beijing's leaders could face a new wave of defiance as a result.

The most stable authoritarian governments are generally the ones with the harshest rulers. Chinese president Hu Jintao is reputed to have said inside one of Beijing's closed councils: "Politically, North Korea has been consistently correct." Kim Jong Il has been able to tighten his grip over a state weakened by continual famine and destitution in large part because of public executions and other tactics that instill dread and apprehension among ordinary North Koreans.