In a March 28 speech at the Körber Foundation in Berlin, China’s president, Xi Jinping, called for historical truth-telling. He had in mind the Rape of Nanking, the massacre carried out by Imperial Japan’s forces in 1937-38 during their occupation of the then-capital of the Chinese Nationalists (the city is now called Nanjing).
“The crimes of the Japanese militarists in invading China, including the Nanjing Massacre, are historical facts that cannot be denied,” Xi said. “Recently, there has been a trend in Japan towards beautifying and denying the history of aggression, which has attracted high concern and caused alarm internationally amongst those who love peace.”
Following an official Japanese protest, foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei defended the Chinese president’s remarks, stating that Xi cited historical facts to “ensure that people always remember what happened to ensure such tragedies can be avoided in the future.”
If it’s important to remember the crimes of the Japanese Imperial Army in Nanjing, then what of a massacre that took place a mere quarter-century ago? If historic accountability is needed for Nanjing, then surely the same is true for “the June 4th Incident,” as the 1989 assault in Tiananmen Square is known in China.
Yet even as Beijing castigates Japan for “denying its history of aggression,” the censors in China continue to block Internet access to Chinese people seeking answers about Tiananmen Square.What’s more, Beijing’s propagandists go into overdrive every June 4 with official denials of the bloody use of force at Tiananmen Square. Here, for example, is the piece of sophistry China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released in June 2012 in reaction to a U.S. statement on the Tiananmen anniversary date:
The U.S. side has been ignoring the facts and issuing such statements year after year, making baseless accusations against the Chinese government and arbitrarily interfering with China’s internal affairs. The Chinese side expresses strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition to such acts.
The U.S. statement read, in part: “We encourage the Chinese government to release all those still serving sentences for their participation in the demonstrations; to provide a full public accounting of those killed, detained or missing; and to end the continued harassment of demonstration participants and their families.”
Among those still incarcerated from Tiananmen Square is 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. Liu organized and participated in the “Tiananmen Four Gentlemen Hunger Strike” on June 2, 1989. He also joined with his human rights colleagues in successfully negotiating with the military commander the peaceful withdrawal of thousands of students from Tiananmen Square, thus likely avoiding bloodshed on an even more massive scale. For this and other activities termed “inciting subversion of state power,” he remains locked up as a political prisoner in northeast China.
Tiananmen left a lasting, negative impression of China’s leaders in the outside world that lingered for years, thanks in part to the iconic photograph of “Tank Man,” the lonely, heroic figure who stood in protest in front of a column of tanks. The tanks were rolling menacingly down a Beijing street in the wake of the mass killing of students and workers in and around Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3-4, 1989. The young man stopped them in their tracks. Almost a decade later, in April 1998, Time included this “Unknown Rebel” in a feature titled Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century. (No one knows what became of the heroic “Tank Man”—some say he was executed days later; others claim he mingled with the gathered crowd and then melted away.)
Yet congressional delegations on subsequent visits to China found in university meetings that young people displayed complete ignorance of this historic figure. They assumed the man was in a street protest in Thailand, Burma, or some other Asian country. The Chinese educational system has circumvented the means “to ensure that people always remember” what happened at Tiananmen.
And who can forget the toppling in Tiananmen Square of the Goddess of Democracy, that inspiring figure of China’s hope? The statue was constructed by students from the Central Academy of Fine Arts to reenergize the movement after weeks of protests. A student sculptor has said she was not modeled after her sister, the Statue of Liberty, as this would have been seen as “too openly pro-American.”