Erasing The Memory of Tiananmen

 (AP Photo / Jeff Widener, File)

(AP Photo / Jeff Widener, File)


Tiananmen Square, Beijing, June 1989. An event that shook China to its core, twenty-five years ago this week.

The spark that ignited the uprising at Tiananmen Square was the death of Hu Yaobang, a liberal reformer who was also General Secretary of the Communist Party. Hardliners in the Party had deposed him, after Mr. Hu spoke out in favour of political and economic reform, and against corruption in the party elite.

At first, university students gathered in Tiananmen Square to mourn Mr. Hu's death, but grief soon turned into grievance. The protesters began to call for fundamental change in China, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press and government accountability. At the height of the demonstrations, about a million people occupied Tiananmen, the fourth-largest city square on the planet.

Within weeks, a student hunger strike had garnered support outside Beijing, sparking protests in about 400 cities across the country. At first, the government seemed conciliatory; but ultimately, there was a brutal crackdown. Authorities declared martial law and ordered more than 200 thousand troops to attack their own citizens. No one has been able to confirm the death toll in the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Depending on whom you ask, the figure ranges from several hundred to several thousand. And the crackdown continued long after the military attack of June 3rd and 4th, with the widespread arrests of protesters and their supporters.

These are well-documented events, but these days in China, it is as if the Tiananmen Massacre never happened. Even in this information age, the government has been determined, efficient and largely successful at rewriting, even erasing, this bloody chapter of the country's history.

Rowena Xiaoqing He is determined to keep the memory of Tiananmen alive. She was a seventeen-year-old student in Guangdong at the time of the uprising. She left China to study in Canada at the University of Toronto, where she earned a PhD in 2008. Now Ms. He is a lecturer in the faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University. Her new book is Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China, in which she tells her own story, as well as the stories of three student leaders who were exiled from China.

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