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Why Tiananmen Doesn’t Disappear

by Elizabeth C. Economy
June 4, 2014

Tens of thousands of people take part in a candlelight vigil at Hong Kong's Victoria Park on June 4, 2014, to mark the 25th anniversary of the military crackdown on the pro-democracy movement at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. (Bobby Yip/Courtesy Reuters) Tens of thousands of people take part in a candlelight vigil at Hong Kong's Victoria Park on June 4, 2014, to mark the 25th anniversary of the military crackdown on the pro-democracy movement at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. (Bobby Yip/Courtesy Reuters)

There are few dates in contemporary history that are as universally acknowledged as June 4, 1989, the day of the Chinese military crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. Yet what is the significance of this date twenty-five years later? Certainly there is no consensus: from the Global Times to the New York Times, Tiananmen elicits vastly different understandings of what transpired then and what it means today. Yet there is value in acknowledging these different understandings of history and hopes for the future, in large part because they so clearly inform the present. Moreover, the story of Tiananmen continues to evolve. New voices are emerging that want to be heard.

Some argue that Tiananmen no longer matters much. China’s Global Times suggests that the context for understanding Tiananmen has changed in ways that undermine its importance: those who experienced it have “developed a deeper understanding” of the incident as the result of China’s economic success and various tragedies such as the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the fall of communism, and the Arab Spring (although I am not sure that all the people in those regions view their political transitions as tragedies). Moreover, the Global Times suggests that while Chinese society has “never forgotten the incident twenty-five years ago,” “not talking about it indicates the attitude of society.” (Or, perhaps it indicates an unwillingness to be detained or go to jail.) Chinese journalist Helen Gao echoes some of these sentiments, suggesting that even among knowledgeable Chinese youth, there is not much interest in resurrecting Tiananmen. Still others, such as businessman Donald Straszheim, strikingly argue that China has learned the right lessons from Tiananmen and now proactively and preemptively addresses the country’s challenges such as the 2004 (2003) SARS scare and the Sichuan earthquake.

Others are more committed to the idea that the relevance of Tiananmen continues even today. Daniel Hong, writing in the South China Morning Post, suggests that confronting Tiananmen honestly is essential for future generations of Chinese, both as a means of bridging the future and the past and to understand what causes a society’s successes and failures. I, myself, share this perspective arguing in a USA Today piece that Beijing’s legitimacy at home and leadership abroad ultimately rest on its ability to address its history openly.

Certainly, no one writing in an op-ed page has been bolder than Murong Xuecun who, in the pages of the New York Times, declared that when he returns from Australia to Beijing in July, he will turn himself in as a sign of support for those who have already been detained or jailed.

And we are still learning of new and different perspectives. As a fascinating article in the New York Times reveals, many members of the military and people’s armed police remain conflicted even today over their role in suppressing the protests.

Tiananmen doesn’t disappear because collective memory is powerful and because there has been no full accounting by Beijing of the events of the day. It also doesn’t disappear because the images of the period were so powerful. Indeed, the Tiananmen story may best be told through images. Here is a collection of photos—many of which are new to me—taken during the weeks leading up to and including June 4. A picture really is worth a thousand words.

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