The Ghosts of Tiananmen Square


Ian Johnson in the NY Review of Books (image Ken Jarecke/Contact Press Images):

Eight-nine-six-four: June 4, 1989.

This is a date that the Communist Party has tried hard to expunge from public memory. On the night of June 3–4, China’s paramount ruler, Deng Xiaoping, and a group of senior leaders unleashed the People’s Liberation Army on Beijing. Ostensibly meant to clear Tiananmen Square of student protesters, it was actually a bloody show of force, a warning that the government would not tolerate outright opposition to its rule. By then, protests had spread to more than eighty cities across China, with many thousands of demonstrators calling for some sort of more open, democratic political system that would end the corruption, privilege, and brutality of Communist rule.1 The massacre in Beijing and government-led violence in many other cities were also a reminder that the Communist Party’s power grew out of the barrel of a gun. Over the coming decades the Chinese economy grew at a remarkable rate, bringing real prosperity and better lives to hundreds of millions. But behind it was this stick, the message that the government was prepared to massacre parts of the population if they got out of line.

When I returned to China as a journalist in the early 1990s, the Tiananmen events had become a theater played out every spring. As the date approached, dissidents across China would be rounded up, security in Beijing doubled, and censorship tightened. It was one of the many sensitive dates on the Communist calendar, quasi-taboo days that reflected a primal fear by the bureaucracy running the country. It was as if June 4, or liu si (six-four) in Chinese, had become a new Qingming, but one the government was embarrassed to admit existed. Now the crackdowns in May and June have lessened in intensity but are still part of daily life for hundreds of people throughout China, such as Xu Jue, the mother of a Tiananmen victim.

What remains? The author Christa Wolf used this phrase as the title of a novella set in late-1970s East Berlin. A woman notices that she is under surveillance and tries to imprint one day of her life in her memory so she can recall it sometime in the future when things can be discussed more freely. It is a story of intimidation and suppressed longing. Is this the right way to think of Tiananmen, as an act frozen in time, awaiting its true recognition and denouement in some vague future?

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