The Great Forgetting 20 Years After Tiananmen Square

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Kang Zhengguo remembers where he was when his hopes were crushed. It was 6 a.m. on June 4, 1989. He had just awakened and turned on his shortwave radio, hoping for good news. Two weeks earlier, Deng Xiaoping had imposed martial law in an attempt to contain the protests that had gripped China since April, but the students had refused to relinquish

Kang, a bookish literature professor at Xi’an Jiaotong University in the central city of Xi’an, had been jailed for his ideas during the Cultural Revolution. He had reason to be wary of a student movement. Still, like intellectuals across China, he supported the demonstrations, hoping, even as the People’s Liberation Army advanced on downtown Beijing on June 3, that they might bring needed political reforms. “We had an illusion,” he recalls. “We thought if the students were really strong, the soldiers would turn around and support them.” Now, tuning in to Voice of America, he heard that the opposite had happened. The army had opened fire.

Hundreds died, many of them bystanders and workers who stood in the path to Tiananmen Square. Within hours, Xi’an Jiaotong students were blasting news of the slaughter over the university PA system and gathering on athletics fields to march downtown. Kang scrawled AIM YOUR GUNS HERE on a piece of paper and pinned it on his chest. Then he joined the crowd —altering, with that modest act of protest, the course of his career.

For many Westerners, the enduring image of China’s 1989 protests was of a nameless man staring down a tank, an unforgettable scene that spoke to the power of individual resistance. But the protests were not so much a Chinese 1960s as they were a quiet nationwide uprising, a simmering defiance that spanned class, education level, and geography. In the month and a half before the army opened fire, students at universities around China took to the streets. Workers went on strike. Old people distributed food and water. Even thieves, participants recall with nostalgia, called a moratorium on stealing. Intellectuals across the country showed particular enthusiasm. At Xi’an Jiaotong, Kang says, “70 percent of the faculty supported the students.” Another 20 percent were too scared to voice an opinion. Only administrators who had an interest in maintaining order publicly opposed the protests. But the military crackdown in the early hours of June 4 decisively squelched any hope of openness and reform. For the hundreds of thousands of people who took part in protests across China that year, the assault indelibly affected their lives, forcing some into exile, others to prison, and dooming many more to stagnant careers. More subtly, the slaughter at Tiananmen shaped intellectual currents for decades to come. Now, on the 20th anniversary of the crackdown, participants say Chinese academic and intellectual life is profoundly different.

Before the crackdown, Kang had been on track for a full professorship. But because of his involvement in the student protests, his prospects for advancement at Xi’an Jiaotong evaporated. He applied to other universities, only to be told that his academic and political record was a problem. That was, in a way, the lesser insult. By 1994, when he left Xi’an to take a position at Yale —an opportunity that came, by a stroke of luck, after a professor in the Chinese department picked up a book of literary criticism Kang had written years before —his colleagues had begun to question the wisdom of democratic reform. In 1996, China was gripped by a book called China Can Say No, which urged readers to turn inward and reject the “Western” construct of democratic reform. Two of its authors claimed to have protested at Tiananmen Square.

Kang, now 64 and settled with his family in New Haven, has continued to assail his government for the deaths in 1989, describing his memories in his recent book Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China (W.W. Norton, 2007). But when he returns to China now, he is a maverick. “My relatives and my friends criticize me” for bringing up politics, he says. “They say, ‘China is much better now than before. Our daily lives are much better than they once were.'” Even other professors, he says, have moved on. “They talk about buying a house, buying a car, going abroad on vacation, putting their kids in this or that school. No one discusses politics.” He pauses, searching for an explanation. “It’s not that they’re afraid. It’s that they’re not interested.”

On May 4, 1919, thousands of students from 13 Beijing universities gathered in Tiananmen Square to protest their government’s weak response to the Treaty of Versailles, which included terms that many felt were unfair to China. The movement soon spread to Shanghai and from students to workers, paving the way for the formation of the Communist Party. Party leaders viewed the May Fourth movement as so critical to the Communist revolution that in 1958, when they unveiled the Monument to the People’s Heroes in the center of Tiananmen Square, the faces of the 1919 protestors were carved into one side.

In 1989, when students once again converged on the square, they chose the monument as their base. “May Fourth was very important to Chinese history,” says Wang Chaohua, a student organizer who appeared on the government list of 21 most-wanted leaders after the Tiananmen crackdown. “Like the students of May Fourth, we wanted to propose something new.” In both 1919 and 1989, says Wang, who recently completed a doctorate in Asian languages and literature at the University of California at Los Angeles, “political authorities did not command the public imagination. The vacuum was filled by intellectual energy.”

Students first gathered in the square on April 15, 1989, to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, a reformist who had been purged from Communist leadership two years earlier. Most of the students had been born on the eve of the Cultural Revolution and grown up in a time of pervasive political theater; they saw demonstrations as an effective means of influencing policy. But other factors contributed to unrest —among professors as well as students. Nascent economic reforms had yielded insufficient results for the educated class. Instead, intellectuals had watched as party leaders used their power to ensure the success of their own children.

“One of the fires that lit [scholars] was that they had been treated so poorly,” says Perry Link, a historian at the University of California at Riverside. “They had tiny salaries and couldn’t travel very much, so they had a lot of personal complaints. That fueled their thought about what went wrong with China in a concrete sense.” One slogan shouted in the square was “Raise the pay of intellectuals!”

Students also wanted more freedom in their personal lives. Before 1989 universities tightly controlled students’ private activities, imposing curfews and restrictions on dating. In the square, students danced and listened to the music of the pop star Hou Dejian. In the excitement of the protests, one student leader, Li Lu, informed a crowd that he was still a virgin. He and his girlfriend staged a wedding on the Monument to the People’s Heroes, as other protesters toasted the couple with salt water from their hunger strike. “What do we want?” Wu’er Kaixi, another of the movement’s leaders, asked of his generation in the 1995 documentary The Gate of Heavenly Peace. “Nike shoes. Lots of free time to take our girlfriends to a bar. The freedom to discuss an issue with someone.”

In the wake of June Fourth, as the massacre is known in China, that freedom came. Deng intensified market reforms, embarking on a 1992 tour of southern China, the country’s cradle of manufacturing, that ushered in rapid economic growth. As China prospered, government money flowed into academe. In the late 1990s, China launched Project 211 and Project 985, which funneled billions of yuan into dozens of universities. The Ministry of Education expanded opportunities for scholars to go abroad and announced new research funds for those who stayed home. At the same time, ministry and university party cadres loosened controls over students’ personal lives.

Since 1989, “they’ve been trying to remove some of the sources of frustration that drove intellectuals into the streets,” says Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian of Chinese protest at the University of California at Irvine. “There’s much less micromanagement of daily life on campuses. There’s less control over academic trips. There’s a wider array of books you can buy in bookstores. Students can now be part of global youth culture.”

At Xi’an Jiaotong University, Kang recalls, the months following June Fourth were grim. Sirens wailed, and offenders were seized in the street. The fall semester of 1989 started with a witch hunt, with professors and students brought in for questioning. Then, in a grim Orwellian twist, came the parties. Nearly every weekend that winter, Kang says, his students invited him to a dance. “After June Fourth, boys and girls could go here and there together,” he recalls. “Administrators wanted students to date. They wanted them to turn decadent.”

“The kids who followed us were able to own pairs of Nike shoes,” says Wu’er, reflecting on his earlier explanation for the protests. “It’s a deal the Chinese Communist Party made with the people: We’re going to let you get rich, but you have to surrender your political freedom.”

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Not everyone profited. While Kang Zhengguo listened, horrified, as radio announcers relayed news of the deaths in Beijing, across town Zhou Qing was strategizing. For over a month, Zhou, a 25-year-old staff writer at Northwest University, had coordinated protests in Xi’an’s New City Square. On June 5, fearing more bloodshed, he dispatched trucks outfitted with loudspeakers, urging students to return home. Then he fled to the hills, where he hid out in peasants’ sheds for three months. When he finally slinked back into town to check on his girlfriend in late September, he was seized at gunpoint.

Zhou spent the next two years in a Xi’an prison that was, he says, “like a movie.” He was put to work in an assembly line that was required to turn out 12,000 matchboxes a day. If his line didn’t make its quota, they didn’t eat. Guards occasionally singled out prisoners for “vaccination,” an intimidation tactic that entailed inserting insects into a cut in the forearm, yielding a slow and hideous infection. As punishment for trying to escape, Zhou was transferred to a labor camp where he spent another eight months surrounded by 17- and 18-year-old political prisoners. At mealtime, older prisoners bullied the students out of their food. “One student used to come to me and tell me his dreams,” Zhou recalls. “He dreamed of a street filled with steamed buns.”

Other activists got away. Many of the 1989 movement’s most famous leaders fled, like Wu’er and Wang, to the West. Several enrolled at U.S. universities. A few continued to advocate for human rights from abroad. Others went into business. Wu’er now manages an investment fund in Taiwan. After earning an M.B.A. from Harvard University, Chai Ling, another student leader, started a Boston software company that provides free Web portals to universities in exchange for students’ contact information, promoting its product with press releases that invoked her role in the square. (Chai has also filed suit against the makers of The Gate of Heavenly Peace, who include several prominent China scholars in America, for linking on their Web site to news articles that reported critical information about her company.)

But outside of labor camps and Western democratic havens, the memory of what happened dulled. For a few years following 1989, videos about June Fourth —known in Mandarin simply as liu si, or “6/4” —circulated on the black market. Then the government began a campaign of forgetting, first spinning the event and then erasing it. The popular Chinese search engine Baidu now blocks at least 19 derivations of “six four,” including Chinese character homophones, the abbreviation “sf,” and “63+1.”

Such controls are far from total, but they can be very effective. On June 4, 2007, a newspaper in Chengdu published a small advertisement recognizing the mothers of the 1989 victims. Online, chat-room users speculated about how such a message could have gotten past the paper’s editors —until it was revealed that the young clerk who took the ad didn’t recognize the event. What might have been a quiet act of resistance was instead a measure of a nation’s forgetting.

“My students don’t know what it is,” says a professor at a city university in Shanghai who witnessed the protests as a teenager. “You say June Fourth and they say, ‘What, my birthday’?”

Even the staunchest critics of China’s regime acknowledge it now allows discussion in areas that were once off limits. After his release from prison, Zhou became an investigative journalist, tackling sensitive issues like food safety, and only sometimes encountering government intervention. At the same time, some contend that economic growth has merely allowed the Chinese government to fine-tune its control of dissent. As the government’s spending power grew, so did the carrots it could offer for obedience. “The government has great ambition for scholarly work that can make considerable breakthroughs, like shooting satellites into outer space,” says Wang Chaohua, who edited a volume of work by Chinese intellectuals titled One China, Many Paths (Verso, 2003). “But to do work in the social sciences and humanities, you need to have a real independent spirit, and that isn’t what the government wants to see. So you have a lot of political intervention.”

Intellectuals who follow the state line are rewarded with trips abroad and generous research grants, critics say. “There are many research programs now that are sponsored by the government,” says Wang Tiancheng, a former law professor at Peking University. “It’s a type of corruption. They’re buying scholars.”

Wang, now a visiting scholar at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Human Rights, knows that power play firsthand. He spent five years in prison in the 1990s as one of the “Beijing Fifteen,” a group of intellectuals persecuted for their opposition to one-party rule. When he was released from prison in 1997, no university would hire him. “If you don’t go along with the Communist Party, if you don’t censor yourself, you’ll lose out on many benefits, including promotions and honors,” he says.

Inquiries related to June Fourth are particularly out of bounds. The events of 1989 shaped the work of the writer Ma Jian, who shuttled supplies to students in the square. His most recent novel, Beijing Coma (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2008), is told from the perspective of a student who is shot in the back during the 1989 crackdown, only to live through two decades on life support —a not-so-subtle metaphor for what Ma sees as a numb post-Tiananmen China. The writer lives in London, where he is insulated by international fame, but he says the friends he saw on his trip back to China this spring were detained shortly after he left merely for associating with him. “Just a month ago we were eating together in Chengdu,” he says, naming one friend. “And now he’s in jail.”

This past April 15, 20 years after the death of Hu Yaobang first brought students to Tiananmen Square, it was filled with police. The Monument to the People’s Heroes was cordoned off, and a blue sign near its base read, in Chinese, PLEASE DO NOT ENTER. Most of the people at the square that afternoon were tourists from the provinces; many wore the red and yellow baseball hats of organized tour groups. These days Beijing’s students are more likely to congregate a few blocks away, at the flashy malls of Wangfujing.

Some say economic nationalism cannot hold. Since December, more than 8,000 scholars and professionals have signed Charter 08, a manifesto calling for the Communist Party to obey the Chinese Constitution and respect human rights. The Internet presents a thorny obstacle to government control, with new Web sites and code words springing up as soon as others are blocked. And even government-financed research trips can backfire. Scholars who leave for a few years tend to return with new ideas.

“The leadership of Hu Jintao is trying to return to a neo-Confucian education system where people don’t challenge certain values,” says Merle Goldman, a historian of Chinese intellectual life at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. “That’s impossible in China today because of its openness to the outside world. No matter what this regime does, it’s going to be very difficult for them to control the academic community.”

But others say the academic community may control itself. On a trip back to China in 2000, Kang Zhengguo spent a few days with several former colleagues. In 1989, when they were professors and administrators at Xi’an Jiaotong, the men had joined him in speaking out against the violence in Beijing. Later his colleagues fled to Shenzhen, a freewheeling city that has sprung up in the wake of economic reforms. Two became successful businessmen; one philosophy professor became a high-level government official. Kang hoped the old friends, now all safely in senior positions, might reminisce about China’s era of protest, but his attempts to bring up the Tiananmen demonstrations failed.

One colleague, the official, instead peppered him with questions about American universities; he hoped to send his son to study abroad. “I was nostalgic,” Kang says. “And they were indifferent.”

First published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.


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Mara Hvistendahl
Mara Hvistendahl is a contributing correspondent at Science magazine and the author of Unnatural Selection, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Mara has written for The Atlantic, Harper’s, Scientific American, Popular Science, The Wall Street Journal, and Foreign Policy. A longtime correspondent in China, she now lives in Minneapolis.