Today marks 25 years since the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Except in China itself. There, today is the anniversary of nothing much. Counter-revolutionary riots with a few deaths if anything. In fact, the governing Communist Party has done its very best to make sure that no one remembers June 4 at all. So what happened on this day 25 years ago? And what has been the effect of one of the biggest ever attempts at mass censorship?
What the world knows as the Tiananmen Square Massacre was the sudden and violent end to a month long protest in the square. The protests were led by students, who gathered in mid-April 1989 in response to the death of a reformist politician. Over the course of the next month the protests gradually gathered momentum and support from other social groups and parts of the country. As the Communist Party stepped up propaganda against the students, the protests became more and more antagonistic towards the Party. In early June, the government finally put their crackdown plan into action.
Late at night on the 3rd of June reports began to reach the square of protesters elsewhere in the city being shot down by soldiers. Soon the army arrived at Tiananmen and surrounded it, sending in armoured vehicles that were bombarded with molotov cocktails. But with threats, beatings and eventually volleys of gunfire, the students were finally driven out of the square. Video from the time shows immense chaos in the streets surrounding Tiananmen, with wounded being brought to safety on bicycles that swerved past burning vehicles, and soldiers firing on the crowd from lorries.
Not only the students, but also local residents reacted with disbelief and fury. A small number of soldiers were beaten to death or burnt alive during the crackdown, which provided the Communist Party with the justification of a ‘counter-revolutionary riot’. In the morning of the 4th of June, a large group of protesters – including parents of students believed killed – tried to return to the square, and were faced with rows of infantry. The soldiers opened fire and dozens of people were killed in full view of journalists watching from a hotel. In the end the number of deaths in Beijing totalled anywhere from several hundred to over a thousand. Even after the protests in the capital were crushed by the army, it took a number of days for more protests across China to be brought under control. There is little information about these other protests, and the truth may never be known.
In most other countries such a number of people being shot by their own government would have had a massive impact on politics and society. This is exactly what the Communist Party wanted to avoid. Thousands of people across the country were arrested, with many dissidents jailed for years. But their main strategy was censorship. For 25 years any discussion or commemoration of the deaths has been forbidden. Textbooks don’t mention the events, and neither does the media. The Internet is another battleground for censorship, with foreign websites and search terms like ‘4 June’ and ‘Tiananmen Square’ being blocked. While some in China try to evade this censorship by such means as referring to the 4th of June as the 35th of May, the government’s efforts have been extraordinarily successful. Most young people in China know nothing about what happened. If they do know something, it is that the 4th of June is not a date to be talked about. The Communist Party has to a large decree succeeded in wiping the democracy movement and subsequent massacre out of its own past.
Today Tiananmen Square is surrounded by police and a large number of activists have been detained, just in case. In Taiwan and Hong Kong there are commemerations taking place, but in Tiananmen Square the tourists walk around like it’s an ordinary day. The lack of memory about the massacre shows the immense control the Communist Party still has over China’s politics 25 years on. It’s a system that has been written off numerous times before, but as long as it provides incredible economic growth, it seems to keep on surviving. Despite this progress though, the killings in Tiananmen Square will remain a stain that – no matter how hard they try – the Communist Party cannot quite erase.
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