For Chinese, the Tiananmen Square Massacre Is Still Too Taboo to Talk About
For Chinese, the Tiananmen Square Massacre Is Still Too Taboo to Talk About
A 25 May 1989 file photo shows students waving banners as they march in Beijing streets near Tiananmen Square during a rally to support the pro-democracy protest against the Chinese government. (Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images)

A 25 May 1989 file photo shows students waving banners as they march in Beijing streets near Tiananmen Square during a rally to support the pro-democracy protest against the Chinese government. (Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images)

Picture dated 14 May 1989 shows student hunger strikers from Beijing University  as several hundred students stage a huge demonstration at Tiananmen Square. (Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images)

Picture dated 14 May 1989 shows student hunger strikers from Beijing University as several hundred students stage a huge demonstration at Tiananmen Square. (Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images)

School students arrive in a truck to Tiananmen Square to lend their enthusiastic support for striking university students in Beijing on May 19, 1989. (AP Photo/Sadayuki Mikami)

School students arrive in a truck to Tiananmen Square to lend their enthusiastic support for striking university students in Beijing on May 19, 1989. (AP Photo/Sadayuki Mikami)

Several hundred of 200,000 pro-democracy student protesters face to face with policemen outside the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square 22 April 1989 in Beijing as they take part in the funeral ceremony of former Chinese Communist Party leader and liberal reformer Hu Yaobang during an unauthorized demonstration to mourn his death. (Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images)

Several hundred of 200,000 pro-democracy student protesters face to face with policemen outside the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square 22 April 1989 in Beijing as they take part in the funeral ceremony of former Chinese Communist Party leader and liberal reformer Hu Yaobang during an unauthorized demonstration to mourn his death. (Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images)

Students sing as they hold a pro-democracy protest on Tiananmen Square in Beijing in May of 1989. (Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images)

Students sing as they hold a pro-democracy protest on Tiananmen Square in Beijing in May of 1989. (Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images)

A Beijing university student sits bound in a cardboard box as the strike for democracy continues for the third day in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, Tuesday, May 16, 1989. The box indicates he cannot use his hands so he cannot eat. (AP Photo/Sadayuki Mikami)

A Beijing university student sits bound in a cardboard box as the strike for democracy continues for the third day in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, Tuesday, May 16, 1989. The box indicates he cannot use his hands so he cannot eat. (AP Photo/Sadayuki Mikami)

The April-June1989 pro-democracy movement was crushed by Chinese troops in June 1989 when army tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square 04 June. (Catherine  Henriette/AFP/Getty Images)

The April-June1989 pro-democracy movement was crushed by Chinese troops in June 1989 when army tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square 04 June. (Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images)

Morning activity in Beijing's Tiananmen Square is reflected in the wet pavement, May 24,1989, following a downpour the night before. In the background are the Martyrs monument and beyond that, Mao's mausoleum. (AP Photo/Mark Avery)

Morning activity in Beijing's Tiananmen Square is reflected in the wet pavement, May 24,1989, following a downpour the night before. In the background are the Martyrs monument and beyond that, Mao's mausoleum. (AP Photo/Mark Avery)

This is a May 27, 1989 photo of student leader Wang Dan in Tiananmen Square Beijing calling for a city wide march. (AP Photo/Mark Avery)

This is a May 27, 1989 photo of student leader Wang Dan in Tiananmen Square Beijing calling for a city wide march. (AP Photo/Mark Avery)

Students and police link arms to keep crowds of people, many of these relatives of strikers, from Tiananmen Square, where students have been on hunger strike since Saturday, Thursday, May 18, 1989, Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Sadayuki Mikami)

Students and police link arms to keep crowds of people, many of these relatives of strikers, from Tiananmen Square, where students have been on hunger strike since Saturday, Thursday, May 18, 1989, Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Sadayuki Mikami)

Chinese troops and tanks gather in Beijing, June 5, 1989, one day after the military crackdown that ended a seven week pro-democracy demonstration on Tiananmen Square. Hundreds were killed in the early morning hours of June 4. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener)

Chinese troops and tanks gather in Beijing, June 5, 1989, one day after the military crackdown that ended a seven week pro-democracy demonstration on Tiananmen Square. Hundreds were killed in the early morning hours of June 4. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener)

A Chinese couple on a bicycle take cover at an underpass as tanks deploy overhead in eastern Beijing, China, June 5, 1989. (AP Photo/Liu Heung Shing)

A Chinese couple on a bicycle take cover at an underpass as tanks deploy overhead in eastern Beijing, China, June 5, 1989. (AP Photo/Liu Heung Shing)

A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Cangan Blvd. in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener)

A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Cangan Blvd. in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener)

Student displays a banner with one of the slogans chanted by the crowd of some 200,000 pouring into Tiananmen Square 22 April 1989 in Beijing in an attempt to participate in the funeral ceremony of former Chinese Communist Party leader and liberal reformer Hu Yaobang during an unauthorized demonstration to mourn his death. (Catherine Henriette /AFP/Getty Images)

Student displays a banner with one of the slogans chanted by the crowd of some 200,000 pouring into Tiananmen Square 22 April 1989 in Beijing in an attempt to participate in the funeral ceremony of former Chinese Communist Party leader and liberal reformer Hu Yaobang during an unauthorized demonstration to mourn his death. (Catherine Henriette /AFP/Getty Images)

Taken care by others, an unidentified foreign journalist (2nd-r) is carried out from the clash site between the army and students 04 June 1989 near Tiananmen Square. On the night of 03 and 04 June 1989, Tiananmen Square sheltered the last pro-democracy supporters. (Thomas Cheng/AFP/Getty Images)

Taken care by others, an unidentified foreign journalist (2nd-r) is carried out from the clash site between the army and students 04 June 1989 near Tiananmen Square. On the night of 03 and 04 June 1989, Tiananmen Square sheltered the last pro-democracy supporters. (Thomas Cheng/AFP/Getty Images)

Beijing residents inspect the interior of some of over 20 armoured personnel carrier burnt by demonstrators to prevent the troops from moving into Tiananmen Square 04 June 1989. (Manuel Ceneta/AFP/Getty Images)

Beijing residents inspect the interior of some of over 20 armoured personnel carrier burnt by demonstrators to prevent the troops from moving into Tiananmen Square 04 June 1989. (Manuel Ceneta/AFP/Getty Images)

In this combination of photos, a May 26, 1989 file photo, top, shows a sanitation worker cleaning up Tiananmen Square which had been occupied by student protesters, and the same spot almost 25 years later, in a May 22, 2014 photo, bottom, a cleaner, wearing a red armband who is part of the civilian security informers, watches tourists on her electric tricycle in Beijing. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener, top, Alexander F. Yuan, bottom)

In this combination of photos, a May 26, 1989 file photo, top, shows a sanitation worker cleaning up Tiananmen Square which had been occupied by student protesters, and the same spot almost 25 years later, in a May 22, 2014 photo, bottom, a cleaner, wearing a red armband who is part of the civilian security informers, watches tourists on her electric tricycle in Beijing. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener, top, Alexander F. Yuan, bottom)

In this two-picture combo, a June 10, 1989 file photo, top, shows Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) troops stand guard with tanks in front of Tiananmen Gate, and almost 25 years later, a May 28, 2014 photo, bottom, shows Chinese paramilitary policemen march through to clear tourists from the area for a flag-lowering ceremony on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. (AP Photo/Sadayuki Mikami, top, Alexander F. Yuan, bottom)

In this two-picture combo, a June 10, 1989 file photo, top, shows Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) troops stand guard with tanks in front of Tiananmen Gate, and almost 25 years later, a May 28, 2014 photo, bottom, shows Chinese paramilitary policemen march through to clear tourists from the area for a flag-lowering ceremony on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. (AP Photo/Sadayuki Mikami, top, Alexander F. Yuan, bottom)

In this combination of photos, an April 18, 1989 file photo, top, shows a Chinese student leader reading a list of demands to students staging a sit-in in front of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, and at the same venue almost 25 years later, a May 29, 2014 photo, bottom, shows Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers marching to their positions before an honor guard performance for a welcome ceremony. A quarter century after the Communist Party’s attack on demonstrations centered on Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, the ruling party prohibits public discussion and 1989 is banned from textbooks and Chinese websites. (AP Photo/Kathy Wilhelm, top, Alexander F. Yuan, bottom)

In this combination of photos, an April 18, 1989 file photo, top, shows a Chinese student leader reading a list of demands to students staging a sit-in in front of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, and at the same venue almost 25 years later, a May 29, 2014 photo, bottom, shows Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers marching to their positions before an honor guard performance for a welcome ceremony. A quarter century after the Communist Party’s attack on demonstrations centered on Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, the ruling party prohibits public discussion and 1989 is banned from textbooks and Chinese websites. (AP Photo/Kathy Wilhelm, top, Alexander F. Yuan, bottom)

A woman soldier sings among pro-democracy protesters occupying Beijing's Tiananmen Square, about June 2, 1989. Police and military would occasionally mix with protesters in an attempt to keep the demonstration peaceful. In the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, soldiers overran the square, leaving hundreds dead overnight. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener)

A woman soldier sings among pro-democracy protesters occupying Beijing's Tiananmen Square, about June 2, 1989. Police and military would occasionally mix with protesters in an attempt to keep the demonstration peaceful. In the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, soldiers overran the square, leaving hundreds dead overnight. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener)

A statue modelled after the Statiue of Liberty is ready for unveiling in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, May 30, 1989. The 30-foot styrofoam statue was erected by striking university students. In the background is the Great hall. (AP photo/Shing)

A statue modelled after the Statiue of Liberty is ready for unveiling in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, May 30, 1989. The 30-foot styrofoam statue was erected by striking university students. In the background is the Great hall. (AP photo/Shing)

When I asked my wife, who is Chinese, to see whether some of her friends would be willing to speak with a Western reporter about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, she snapped her head around and blurted out: “Are you nuts?!”

A question like that, she said, would be the fastest way to put a friendship on ice.

The regime-ordered slaughter of hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of Chinese people 26 years ago is not really a topic of conversation among Chinese youth today. In private, one approaches it with the utmost circumspection; in public, not at all.

Even getting Chinese to talk about how they talk about the massacre—not what they think happened, or who was right and who was wrong—has its peculiarities. None of those I spoke with permitted their names to be used, for instance.

Others would not speak directly to me, but only through a friend already known to them. One even agreed with the idea that there should be restrictions of speech on the topic.

Until traveling to the United States and Googling the topic, my wife was one of the truly ignorant. Once, in response to an inquiry about the massacre by a traveling foreign tourist, she asserted that the government was merely restoring stability after violent unrest by radical students—and anyway, it was none of your business. It was “like a mother smacking her unruly child.”

A young man who works in the international department of a major state-run company, when asked for his view on the incident, said the kind of thing that one would say if there was a political commissar on the other side of the mirror glass.

“I’m a Party member, and I side with the Party. Those extreme young people were instigated by hostile foreign forces in an attempt to split China,” he wrote on WeChat, a popular social media app, before dialing it up a notch. “My Party took the correct action at the correct time and strangled those evil forces in their crib.”

Then he added the Chinese phrase that equates to a wink and a nudge: “You know.”

The phrase, “ni dongde” in Mandarin, was first popularized by Lu Xinhua, representative for the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress, when asked in March 2014 whether Zhou Yongkang, the Party’s former security czar, was indeed under disciplinary investigation. Lu’s response equated to an admission that Zhou was, without actually providing the admission. Everyone was in on the joke.

BEIJING, CHINA - APRIL 22:  Students gesture and shout slogans as they pay respect 22 April 1989 in Beijing to former Chinese Communist Party leader and liberal reformer Hu Yaobang as thousands of students gather near the monument to the People's Heroes in Tiananmen Square during an unauthorized demonstration to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang. His death in April trigged an unprecedented wave of pro-democracy demonstrations. The April-June 1989 movement was crushed by Chinese troops in June when army tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square 04 June.  (Photo credit should read CATHERINE HENRIETTE/AFP/Getty Images)
Students sing as they hold a pro-democracy protest on Tiananmen Square in Beijing in May of 1989. (Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images)

And it is precisely this form of political discourse that is so exemplified by the place of the Tiananmen Square massacre in the public sphere: you don’t say it, but everyone knows it. Except it’s no joke.

Saying the wrong thing about the Tiananmen Square massacre has landed people in jail, while others who call for accountability around the massacre are harassed, put under house arrest, or forced to go on “vacations” in the weeks and days leading up to the June 4 anniversary.

This is a dilemma for both the Party and for the public. The regime in some ways wants the youth to forget about the massacre—but it also wants them to know that something terrifying happened, and that they shouldn’t talk about it. A kind of dead zone of thought and speech.

“The Communist Party doesn’t really want people to completely forget about it, like it didn’t happen, like it was before June 4. How would that do?!” said Hu Ping, a veteran democracy activist, at an event commemorating the massacre held in Flushing, New York, recently.

His point is that before 1989, the young generation was fearless, generally unaware of the Party’s capacity for extreme political violence, and had grown up in the relatively liberal post-Mao milieu of reform and progress. “Now, they’re unhappy with the Party, but they won’t protest. Their terror hasn’t faded.”

Chinese democracy activists attend an event about the Tiananmen Square massacre in New York on June 2. (Larry Ong/Epoch Times)
Chinese democracy activists attend an event about the Tiananmen Square massacre in New York on June 2. (Larry Ong/Epoch Times)

For some, it has a little. A group of Chinese exchange students recently penned a letter to the regime, demanding transparency around the events of June 3 and 4, when thousands of People’s Liberation Army soldiers marched on Beijing and gunned down protesters. “This piece of history has been so meticulously manipulated and blocked for so long that many people know little of it,” the letter said.

The official response was telling. Global Times, a nationalist tabloid run by the official Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, published an editorial that accused the signatories of having been “brainwashed” during their sojourns overseas. A few days later, an urgent notice was sent out ordering the piece be deleted from all official websites, according to China Digital Times, which tracks such propaganda notices.

Chen Chuangchuang, one of the signatories of the letter, at the democracy event on Tuesday said, “The authorities claim that a consensus has been reached on the June 4 question. This is really shameless. How did they get the consensus? They used violence and media control. You can’t criticize them or you get thrown in jail. But if you want to praise them, they won’t let you either. They just don’t want you to discuss it.”

Hu Ping said that ideally for the regime, the issue will remain a forbidden topic, yet not forgotten. “They want people to remember the terror, but they want them to forget their righteous indignation.”

The absence of “righteous indignation,” as Hu Ping put it, seems indeed evident among many young people.

A Student from a college radio station, reads comments of pro-democracy supporters on Tiananmen Square in Beijing in May 1989. (Courtesy of 64Memo.com)
A Student from a college radio station, reads comments of pro-democracy supporters on Tiananmen Square in Beijing in May 1989. (Courtesy of 64Memo.com)

A thoughtful Chinese undergraduate, studying statistics at a prestigious university in the United States, said it was important that those of his generation gain an objective and balanced view about “June 4th,” as it is usually called in Chinese. He agreed to speak as long as his name was not used. We will call him John.

John is of the view that “we need to give the public and the government time to reflect.” He believes that 10 to 20 years from now, the Party will start allowing discussion on the matter, a version of it will appear in textbooks, and a revised official verdict will emerge. “We have to give the Party time and patience to accept mistakes, or poorly made decisions.” He is OK with that.

John has actually taken the time to find out about what happened, having spent hours reading material and watching documentaries about the protests and the massacre, including the three hour epic “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” directed by filmmaker Carma Hinton and Australian sinologist Geremie Barmé.

His view is that essentially the students attempted to “taste an unripe fruit,” as famously put by student leader Han Dongfang.

In China, he has only ever spoken to people he was very close with—for example, a former Chinese teacher whom he had known for years, and who was subject to the brainwashing classes held for months in the wake of the massacre. Such caution is due to the fact that he cannot otherwise be sure that the people he is talking to are not spies sent by the Party, he said.

Despite the obvious frustrations of these restrictions, John in fact supports them. He said that the recent letter by overseas students was “concerning” and “extreme.” “If we suddenly opened up or revealed the so-called truth about historical events, there’s a kind of risk that people will go to the other extreme.”

What’s that? Anti-Party speech, of course. As our conversation progressed, it became clear that the freedom to discuss the June 4 massacre is coequal with the freedom to discuss the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party itself. And as long as the Party is the only game in town, speech that calls the Party into question, John said, should not be allowed. He made the point not out of any particular allegiance to the Party itself, it seems, but simply as a result of having internalized its own self-justifying narratives.

When the irony was noted to him that even this argument—ultimately the most considered kind of support one can give the regime—would not even be allowed to be made in China, he readily agreed. “If you say you support the students, then that’s dangerous. And if you say you completely support the Party on its decision, then that’s also dangerous. In China, I am very cautious about this type of debate.”

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