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Is history only defined within the limits of human recollection? What happens to a deeply important event if it fails to transcend time and place? Is remembering the key to opening a better and transformed future? Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the June 4th Tiananmen Square massacre. But after so many enduring years of suffering, Chinese citizens are still strictly prohibited from showing any public demonstrations of remembrance. Every year on this day, soldiers are sent to Tiananmen Square in Beijing to prevent any public outbursts by ‘troublemakers’. June 4th continues to haunt thousands and maybe even millions of people; yet this day is an empty Internet search in China, a conveniently missing crucial event in Chinese books and a highly sensitive topic among those who do know. June 4th, 2014 was a barren anniversary in China, a day stripped from any remnants of the past.
On the morning of June 4th 1989, as many as 10,000 troops marched into Tiananmen, overwhelming the civilians and began to shoot fire. No one could have anticipated the extent of violence that these student-led protests stirred and the exact number of deaths to this day remains a mystery to the public. The protests came after the public mass mourning over the death of former General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Hu Yaobang. Hu was seen as a liberal by his colleagues and the public, which brought him several enemies among his fellow conservative leaders. Those who also sought reform revered him as the figure that could lead China into political and economic reform. When supporters found out about his death due to a sudden heart attack, they saw the deep implications this would have on China’s chance at liberalization. Social and economic changes would be even more difficult to bring about as Hu’s passing symbolised a spark being blown out in the volatile political arena. Thus, the public mourning that started in Tiananmen Square soon moulded into peaceful protests to demonstrate resistance against the communist state. It wasn’t long until the protests in Tiananmen Square garnered nationwide attention and spurred into hundreds of public demonstrations of activism throughout China. Citizens, and in particular university students, had been exhausted of their passiveness and patience for state reform and liberation. Seven weeks of peaceful, student-led protests were shattered by one order from the government, which resulted in the bloody crackdown on June 4th. The leader of China, Deng Xiaoping committed brute military action in a final act to shut out the cries for reform.
To a young Chinese student, June 4th may just be another spring day. The most poignant aspect of this massacre is how extensively it has been silenced in China. Students are taught to love their country and many will look at their beloved home and see a nation of prosperity rather than the ugly truth of one that is built on stringent control and abused power. The desired policy in this divergent and mighty country is repression. In modern China, forgetting this day is easy but how can a rising nation truly embrace its current rise when the state denies its people the right to acknowledge the complexity of social dynamics and the profound loss that is so ingrained in the minds of many Chinese? The lives of fearless youth and souls that longed for freedom took their last breaths in Tiananmen Square, a place that supposedly belongs to the people. These activists put everything on a precarious line for something they believed in whole-heartedly and to raise the new generation in China without regard to this day is a sick disgrace.
As a Chinese expatriate, I have known about June 4th, a piece of information that many students in China have not been exposed to during their schooling years. I am allowed to be curious about this important piece of history and can have my curiosity fulfilled by the Internet and open conversations with my parents, who lived through June 4th. My parents’ experiences altered their perception towards their country and for many people in that generation, June 4th was the final red flag. Many fled the country soon after to avoid persecution, while others, like my parents, immigrated to foreign lands in pursuit of the promise of raising their children in a fair and liberal environment. Expatriates are granted the benefits of Western democracy and liberty while our counterparts in China are denied these fundamental rights.
International scrutiny towards the corrupt and undemocratic country of China has since been intense. The lack of transparency that the Chinese government abides by forms a heavy wall that has yet to be knocked down. Western media is especially critical towards the event and how oppressive the Chinese government was and still is towards the free speech. June 4th not only corroded the faith of Chinese citizens in their country’s reform into democracy but it also tainted the country’s international reputation.
One of the rare remaining tangible reminders of that event is a photograph. The iconic ‘Tank Man’ image. A student protester dressed in a white shirt is captured standing in front of a column of tanks carrying a shopping bag. He was later identified as 19-year old student, Wang Weilen. There are few images from the Tiananmen massacre and most photographers were forced to destroy all materials. ‘Tank Man’ is not only a surviving fragment of the horrific event but more importantly it is symbol of peaceful resistance and courage. His fate remains a mystery. Some claim that he was later executed; others say he escaped to Hong Kong and a year later when Barbara Walters interviewed General Secretary Jiang Zemin, he claimed that Tank Man is still alive. Is it possible that Tank Man was ready to give up his life as he defiantly stepped out in front of the tank? Perhaps, he didn’t rationalize his act, he just felt compelled to step out boldly, led by a glimpse of what fervent hope and fearlessness would look like. Politics has always been a dangerous realm to dabble in China, but for educated minds the distant dream of a democracy ruled nation seems worth fighting for.