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Tiananmen: a battle of remembering vs. forgetting

As a young poet, Cui Weiping was not much interested in politics. But she says she could never shake the image of her husband returning home on a June night 20 years ago, his pants mottled with the blood of people shot by the Chinese army.
AP | By Charles Hutzler, Beijing
UPDATED ON MAY 31, 2009 08:37 PM IST

As a young poet, Cui Weiping was not much interested in politics. But she says she could never shake the image of her husband returning home on a June night 20 years ago, his pants mottled with the blood of people shot by the Chinese army.

Now Cui is speaking out, trying to rescue the memory of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement and its violent end from a powerful government heavily invested in suppressing their very mention.

With the approach on Thursday of the 20th anniversary of “six-four,” Chinese shorthand for the June 4 crackdown date, this Beijing Film Academy professor feels a duty to remember.

“Opening fire was not our responsibility these 20 years. But not talking about six-four has been our responsibility these 20 years,” said Cui, a slight, soft-spoken woman with a pixie-ish haircut.

In mid-May, 53-year-old Cui gave a speech on the duty to speak out to small gathering of like-minded liberals. She posted her comments _ “Are we intending to continue this silence?” _ on her blog. They were excised by censors from the Chinese site but then reposted by others and removed again repeatedly.

Two decades on, the events in the heart of the Chinese capital and elsewhere remain an essential issue for some Chinese even as the authoritarian government has largely succeeded in turning it into a non-issue for many, using stunning economic growth, sophisticated propaganda and repression to stifle public discussion.

The struggle matters because as China becomes economically and diplomatically stronger, its leaders and supporters point to their system as a model, an alternative to the capitalist, democratic West teetering in financial crisis. Gleaming rebuilt cities like Shanghai and the grand, flawless Beijing Olympics are what the Chinese leadership wants to be associated with, not the crackdown. Tiananmen Square has been remodeled too, with patches of grass to make it look less cold and forbidding.

The trouble is, the memories keep percolating. “Eighty-nine is like a dead rat in the Chinese political system. It’s getting stinkier by the day,” said Anne-Marie Brady, a Chinese politics expert at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury. “It has to be dealt with at some point.”

The Tiananmen movement rose from a ferment of reform bubbling through China and the Soviet Bloc. When a popular reformist leader died, students in Beijing marched to Tiananmen to demand change, later occupying the square for weeks and drawing as many as a million people. People from other parts of China joined them, thronging around a makeshift statue of liberty. After hard-liners reasserted themselves, the military assault came, killing hundreds. In one iconic moment of resistance, a lone man holding shopping bags stood in front of a column of tanks.

Though they rarely talk about it, people in their 30s and older in Beijing and elsewhere remember the demonstrations and the months of martial law.

An advertisement circulated on the Internet in March for T-shirts marked with the dates of the crackdown in Roman numerals _ VIIIIXVIIV for ’89 6-4 _ until being expunged. Last July, the plucky Beijing News tabloid ran two pages of photographs of China in the 1980s, one of them of a black-and-white Associated Press image titled “The Wounded” showing young men in bloodstained shirts on the back of a three-wheeled cart. No caption explained the context, but many knew the photo was from the crackdown. The government removed the spread from the Internet and ordered the paper recalled from newsstands.

Stunned by the protests and communism’s collapse in Eastern Europe, Beijing opened a multi-front campaign to keep the Communist Party in power. Free market reforms were unleashed, raising living standards. The propaganda departments that supervise all media were reinvigorated. They adapted the flashy techniques of modern Western advertising and Hollywood entertainment and tamed the Internet. A new nationalistic message was peddled: that the party remained a bulwark against a hostile US intent on thwarting China’s rise to greatness.

Above all, the leadership set about reforming the party. Its elite think tanks studied the lessons of communism’s fall elsewhere. The party opened its doors to entrepreneurs, thus co-opting a potential source of opposition. It restructured and retrained the bureaucracy to make government responsive to people’s needs, if not open and democratic. Tax revenues swollen by the expanding economy provided means to buy off redundant factory workers and poor farmers left behind in the boom.

“Any ruling party, no matter how mighty its power, how senior its qualifications, how long its rein, if it’s stuck in a rut, standing still and not making progress, conservative and rigid and not thinking about forging ahead, then its creativity will fail and its vital energy stop.” Vice President Xi Jinping said reiterating this message to senior officials at the Central Party School last September.

Imposing a silence over Tiananmen and the arrest and harassment of political critics are blunter tools in this strategy. To Cui, the poet, the taboo is a humiliation the leadership uses to make people complicit in preserving the party’s political monopoly.

“To allow such a hole to exist in our lives has made our ethics blurry and problematic,” she said in addressing the May 10 gathering of academics and activists at a hotel function room in Beijing’s Western Hills.

Cui was at home the night of the crackdown; her husband, like many in the city, had stayed on the streets. For years, Cui said, depression clouded her memories of the event. Translating into Chinese the book “Open Letters” by Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright and post-communist president of Czechoslovakia, helped her recover her memories and voice. Her blog, hosted on China’s biggest Internet portal, often features pointed social commentary. Government censorship is a frequent target.

Cui believes that the crackdown remains a sore point for many Chinese, including younger Chinese who are supposed to be apolitical. Friends pass around pirated DVDs of “The Gate of Heavenly Peace,” a 1995 documentary about the Tiananmen movement. Some bulletin board sites host furtive discussions about what to wear to commemorate the anniversary. Some are suggesting white, the traditional color of mourning.

Online, however, Cui said a different idea has been voiced for what to wear this June 4. “Some say we ought to wear a white shirt and blue trousers just like tank man,” Cui said.

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