China on the anniversary of Tiananmen massacre: Between oblivion and silence

A strong police presence prevented acts of tribute in Hong Kong, where there have been more than a dozen arrests. The violent repression against students on June 4, 1989 is now a taboo subject in the country

Police detaining the activist Chan Po Ting in Hong Kong on Sunday.
Police detaining the activist Chan Po Ting in Hong Kong on Sunday.TYRONE SIU (REUTERS)
Guillermo Abril

“Oblivion and silence,” sums up a European diplomatic source based in Beijing. Thirty-four years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, those two words are what best define the mood on the anniversary of the bloody repression of June 4, 1989 against peaceful protesters who had spent weeks in Tiananmen Square demanding political reforms from the Chinese government.

For several years now there has not even been an official ceremony in Hong Kong. The island, returned by the United Kingdom to China in 1997, was for decades the only stronghold in the People’s Republic where massive vigils were organized annually in memory of the victims of the 1989 student protests. But a growing crackdown on freedoms in the former British colony, where a harsh National Security Law has been in force since 2020, has resulted in another year of forgetfulness.

The anniversary went by in Hong Kong with a strong police presence in sensitive points. At least six people were arrested this Sunday, including a well-known figure in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy revolt, the artist Alexandra Wong, AFP reported. Eight others were detained on Saturday, including Sanmu Chan, who shouted: “Don’t forget June 4th. Hong Kongers, do not be afraid!” as he was being taken away by the police, according to Reuters. In Victoria Park, where vigils used to take place, silence reigned this year: instead, pro-Beijing groups were authorized to organize a fair of traditional products.

Hong Kong’s security chief, Chris Tang Ping-keung, warned earlier this week that events in honor of a fact he did not want to name would not be tolerated: “A very special occasion will arrive in the coming days. Many people may want to take advantage of this special occasion to do things that could threaten national security, such as promoting Hong Kong’s independence or trying to subvert state power,” he said, according to the South China Morning Post. ”I would like to say to these people: if they attempt such acts, we will take decisive action, arrest them and charge them if there is sufficient evidence.”

When the appointed date arrives, Beijing usually also takes known dissidents away from the capital. Gao Yu, a veteran journalist imprisoned on several occasions — including after the 1989 protests — commented on the date via audio messages, saying she was away from Beiking on a trip. Gao, 79, believes that it is necessary to continue commemorating June 4 to keep in mind the “democratic aspirations of the people” and not forget “the bloody use of the army by the Chinese Communist Party to repress the people at gunpoint. ”

Absence of critical voices

Gao also laments the growing absence of critical voices that are fading over the decades, such as Bao Tong, who died in November at the age of 90 and was the highest-ranking Chinese official imprisoned for the pro-democracy protests of 1989. Bao, a reformist, was a member of the powerful Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and right-hand man to Zhao Ziyang, who served as the party’s general secretary at the time of the demonstrations.

“Bao Tong was against violent repression, and defended, like Zhao Ziyang, resolving the student movement protest with democratic tools and the rule of law, not with the army,” said Gao. After his release from prison, Bao spent the rest of his life under the scrutiny of the authorities and became an activist for reform. His funeral had a strong security deployment to prevent it from becoming an act of protest.

In China, what happened in Tiananmen does not exist or is discussed only in the privacy of some homes. An online search for “Tiananmen protest” in the Microsoft search engine within China, where the internet is censored (Google isn’t even available), produces as a first result information about the patriotic Chinese flag-raising ceremony in the square, which is held each day at dawn in front of the famous portrait of Mao Zedong; the second result offers information about the Nanjing massacre, perpetrated between 1937 and 1938 by the Japanese against the Chinese during the Sino-Japanese war. The list goes on, but there is nothing on the massacre of June 4, 1989.

Faced with this voluntary forgetfulness, the recent book Assignment China is a reminder of one of the main objectives of journalism: to report on what’s happening on the streets and make sure that nobody covers up the tracks. The book, written by Mike Chinoy — who worked as a CNN correspondent in Beijing for years — collects testimonies from dozens of American reporters who have worked in the Asian nation since 1945. The personal experiences create an oral history of what it means to be a journalist in China, and several chapters are devoted to that spring of 1989.

“With the huge pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere, 1989 became a defining moment not only in Chinese history, but in the history of Chinese news coverage,” Chinoy recounted at the end of April during an online meeting with foreign correspondents. The demonstrations had extraordinary coverage and this coverage was often live, which was quite new at the time.

On that day, there were numerous foreign media outlets in the Chinese capital. They had been authorized by Beijing to reinforce their teams to cover a historic visit by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose trip aroused a lot of interest, as it was going to mark the resumption of China-USSR relations after years of tension. But the protests overshadowed the official acts and blew up the news agenda. The cameras were already in the square, but the focus immediately shifted somewhere other than planned.

At first, there was an explosion of pro-democratic sentiment that was hard for most of the U.S. reporters quoted in the book not to sympathize with, several interviewees acknowledged. They became friends with the students; it seemed that this could only end with the triumph of the student demands. Then they began to fear the worst. Permits for live news coverage were revoked. Martial law was imposed. Reporters discovered rows of tanks waiting on the outskirts of Beijing. And on the night of June 3-4 they found themselves doing what people are not supposed to do: heading towards the source of danger.

The tanks showed up, the AK-47s began shooting, Molotov cocktails went flying, ambulances rushed everywhere. There was blood and dead bodies and wounded people and chaos. “Everything was going in slow motion. It was almost like a scene from Apocalypse Now,” recalls AP photographer Jeff Widener, who got out of Tiananmen on a bicycle with a full roll of film and a blow to his head.

The book questions the death count (a figure that has not yet been clarified and ranges from the hundreds to the thousands); admits to professional mistakes — such as fueling the rumor that there were cracks in the Chinese military — and narrates how Widener took the famous images of the man in front of the tank that circled the world. After getting hit in the head, the reporter went up to a room at the Beijing Hotel. From the balcony, he saw the columns of armored vehicles advancing along Chang’An avenue. Then he noticed a tiny figure gesturing, bags in hand. Widener was waiting, camera in hand, expecting him to get shot. But the man was far away. Widener looked back towards the bed, where he had a lens that would allow him to zoom in on the scene. He knew that going to get it might make him miss the opportunity to capture the moment, but he “took a chance.” He changed the lens, zoomed in and took the picture that has become an icon against forgetting. But in Chinese online networks, it has been censored.

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