Following Donald Trump’s bizarre (and inaccurate) labeling of the Tiananmen Massacre as a “riot”, we take this opportunity to look back at the incident and examine quite how far the Chinese Communist Party is willing to go in order to maintain its worst best kept secret.
The Tiananmen Square protest of 1989 was a well-attended, student led demonstration supporting the Chinese Democratic Movement, triggered by the death of party secretary Hu Yaobang, a liberal reformer. It has been reported that, at its peak, there were more than a million people inside the square, whilst protests spread across nearly 400 cities within China.
On the 13th of May that hundreds of student protesters initiated a hunger strike, hoping to secure discourse with the communist party leaders. The peaceful protesters erected a statue titled the “Goddess of Democracy”, in blissful ignorance of what hell was soon to come. On the 19th of May, then-Premier Li Peng announced martial law was in effect. An ominous warning went out across China on June 1st, when he banned foreign media from covering the demonstration. On June 3rd, Beijing Party Secretary Li Ximing, Mayor Chen Xitong and State Council Secretariat Luo Gan finalised orders for a military operation to quell ‘the riot’. Permission to use ‘any means necessary’ was granted, and the three organisers agreed not to broadcast warnings over state media or allow any person to impede the advancement of the troops.
It was 10pm that evening when the first shots were fired. Tens of thousands of armed troops, and hundreds of tanks, helicopters and armoured vehicles descended on the protesters. Shots were fired indiscriminately into the crowd, vehicles crushed those in their paths and estimates of the injury and death toll reach into the tens of thousands.
There is no mention of the dead by Chinese media. Over 100 terms censored by Chinese internet are directly linked to the event (including Tank Man, 63+1, Democracy and One-Party Dictatorship). Immediately after the event, thousands of “dissidents” were immediately arrested and imprisoned, whilst until this day activists involved in the protest are taken away on state-security supervised holidays during sensitive times for the CCP. Noawadays history textbooks attempt to include no reference to the protests, although previously they were referred to as “anti-China riots”, in a blatant attempt to discredit and demonize the protesters. The “Chinese Wikipedia” is far more aggressive in its censorship, avoiding an entry on the entire year of 1989 completely.
Vast swathes of the younger generations in China are ignorant of what happened that day. Bei Wang, an editor of RNW Media, said ““The younger generation know very little about the Tiananmen Square protests, if at all. It’s been wiped out of our national collective memory”. Jeremy Goldkern, a Beijing business man, does not see it improving any time soon; “The result is that many young people who do not remember 1989 themselves would need an unusual degree of curiosity to look for information about what happened”. Of course, any overly-curious minds still have to deal with state-sponsored silencing. As recently as a few years ago, courts in Changshu found a man guilty of “Inciting State Subversion” when he tried to post images of the post-Tiananmen crackdown on social media and applied to stage a protest on its 24th anniversary. Just last year, Du Yanlin, who took several photos of himself in the square on June 4th, holding an umbrella to protest the massacre, found himself detained for “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.” Whilst some believe that several original protesters remain in prison, the continuing detention of those discussing the event is not uncommon. Cui Weiping, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy, told AFP how many attendants of a private seminar on the topic she attended, were quickly detained after the event.
Never is the phrase “whoever controls the present, controls the past” more applicable then it is to the Chinese Communist Party. Whilst normally heavily utilising a powerful propaganda machine, the CCP are truly able to show off their strength by simply deleting the existence of people across a country, relegating the honourable ideals which potentially thousands died for, to be non-existent to a population; an insult to the memory of those slain then and the humanity of those alive today.