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Tiananmen: forbidden words

By Entre Comillas

por Flavia Poy Barrio

Last Friday, June 4th, was the 32nd anniversary of the famous Tiananmen Massacre. And, for starters, the local government has shown no intention of loosening the control they have over this topic: any type of commemoration of this historical event implies up to 5 years in prison; this fact alone made the news in numerous media outlets. This prosecution was accompanied by repression, such as the deployment of 7,000 riot police at the vigil in Victoria Park in Hong Kong, a space where people peacefully gathered in memory of the victims of the repression of the Tiannamen episode.

This process resulted in the arrest of Chow Hang, an activist who organized annual vigils for the victims of the historic episode. But then, what exactly happened?

In Tiananmen Square in Beijing, on May 14, 1989, one of the darkest episodes in Chinese history took place: thousands of people were killed by Chinese troops after seven weeks of protests against corruption, inflation, and in favor of democracy. Obviously, the numbers of the deceased students and protestors never came to light, but it welcomed the culmination of one of the darkest days, the 4th of June. In short: thousands of students protesting in what was intended to be the largest mobilization in the history of communist China were crushed by the tanks of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which caused near-global condemnation for this party. Furthermore, it just so happened that all this occurred in the same place where the People’s Republic of China was founded, by the famous Mao Zedong in 1949, whose portrait still remains at the entrance to the ancient forbidden city.

What has changed three decades later?

Firstly, no foreign journalist is allowed access to the square on June 4. Second, any type of commemoration is prohibited. And even worse, any reference on any social media platform is unimaginable: the algorithms utilized by the government already take care of eliminating it automatically.

In addition to this becoming an international scandal, there is yet another aspect of the issue we should approach: what about those elderly people who were once part of student groups and whose testimonies are forbidden? The authorities force all of these people into house arrest for a minimum of one week in advance. In other cases, the Government finances a “forced vacation” that they constantly monitor so that no ex-activist has a place in the movement. Fan Baolin, a dissident who was in Tiananmen and spent 17 years in prison, alleged in a report for the spaniard newspaper El Mundo, “Once one is blacklisted by the Chinese government, he will be tracked for life. Even the relatives of activists who have already died are always under surveillance.«

What is the legacy of that great rebellion that democracy demanded?

To put it simply, a repression that has reached the year 2021 and that, in addition to violating key principles of international law, is an attack against the collective memory. This can lead us to a much deeper reflection: the Chinese Government is succeeding in removing from the collective memory what came about on the city’s major thoroughfares in the early morning hours of June Fourth. 

Notwithstanding the above, how is democracy required in a non-democratic country? As it was said in the beginning of the article, 32 years later a pro-democracy activist organizing the vigil that remembers the massacre has been arrested. Remember: the event was peaceful and celebrated with candles, without any kind of social fuss. We can reflect again: it is a mere political taboo whose consequences remain today. For  forgiveness and reconciliation to take place, it is necessary to remember the past and reconstruct the truth: forgiving is not forgetting, but what happens when a society neither forgives nor forgets?

The deployment of seven thousand police officers and the promise of serving up to five years in prison is definitely overstepping the limits of the restrictions that can be justified with the Covid-19 pandemic, as has been the case with government control in many other countries. Memory is a collective phenomenon, and politicians know a lot about it. Precisely, not only written history constitutes collective memory. We as humans do not exactly reproduce the past, we reconstruct it or even ‘build it’. In this sense, totalitarian states, as in the case of China, have, in the words of Anthony Greenwald, a “totalitarian ego”, where they claim nothing of what I have just mentioned is possible. Reconciliation must be based on the truth, but that, I reiterate, does not seem to be of interest to the Chinese government.

If at this stage of reflection you still think that perhaps the interest of today’s societies in finding out their past is excessive, let us refer to the Czech writer Milan Kundera. He was able to affirm, from his purest and finest irony that: «Men want to be masters of the future to be masters of the past»; because «the future is an indifferent emptiness that does not interest anyone, while the past is full of life and its face excites us, irritates us, offends us and that is why we want to destroy or touch it up.» What I missed to clarify, is that this must be absolutely unacceptable: no one should be able to steal our past from us. 

Hershkovitz, L. (1993). Tiananmen Square and the politics of place. Political Geography12(5), 395-420.

Pallarés Molíns, E. (2020) La memoria como arma arrojadiza.

De la Cal, L. (2021, 4 de junio). Siete mil policías y hasta cinco años de cárcel: prohibido recordar la masacre de Tiananmen en Hong Kong. El Mundo.

Hung, W. (1991). Tiananmen Square: a political history of monuments. Representations35, 84-117.

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