25 years after Tiananmen massacre, China still working to expunge its memory

On Chinese search engines, the word Tiananmen produces a blank, and academics are still being arrested for gathering to discuss its implications. Why is China so determined to erase its past, Don Murray asks.

On Chinese search engines, the word produces a blank, and people are still arrested for discussing Tiananmen

Patrick Brown explores the legacy of the explosive protests that took place 25 years ago. 18:07

In the traditional courtyard next to the Forbidden City in the heart of Beijing a well-known defence lawyer was explaining his theory of legal change in China.

Mo Shaoping had defended several leaders of the Tiananmen protests in 1989. They had been convicted. Yet he professed to see signs of progress.

"You must cook the frog slowly," he said. "If you put a live frog in a pot of boiling water, he will leap out. But if the water is cold and you raise the temperature slowly, you will finish with a lovely boiled frog."

At that point his most famous client walked into the courtyard. Liu Xiaobo had been driven there by the security police.

This was in 2008, a week before the June 4 anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre and two months before the start of the Beijing Olympics.

Technically Liu was a free man but, as the security police did every year before the Tiananmen anniversary, they put him under house arrest.

This time, though, with Beijing swarming with foreign journalists in the lead-up to the Olympics, they did not want the embarrassment of seeing stories about a leading dissident refused access to his lawyer. So they drove him to his meeting.

Liu described his position with sardonic humour. "When I was arrested in 1996, they ransacked my house and left it in a mess. In 2004 they came and searched again. But this time they all wore white gloves, and they put everything back. And they chauffeur me to my appointments."

As he sees it, "You can't win a trial in the end, but the legal process is much improved since the 1990s. Still you can't call it the rule of law. The rule of law we have now is only better than the rule of law in Mao Zedong's time when we had no rule, no law."

Viewing words as crime

Liu had been a leader of the pro-democracy protests in 1989 that had shaken the Chinese regime to its core.

For that he was sentenced to two years in prison. Later he spent years in a Chinese prison labour camp for his criticism of the one party system. He was undeterred.

A military police officer patrols over the newly renovated Tianamen Square, the world's largest, as it reopened to the public in June 1999, 10 years after the infamous crackdown on tens of thousands of mostly student protesters. (Associated Press)

Six months after our meeting he was arrested again, two days before he was due to publish his "Charter 08," a lonely call for free speech and democracy.

"We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes," the charter said. The regime disagreed.

A year later, Liu was convicted of "inciting subversion of the state's power," and sentenced to 11 years in prison. In 2010 he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Viewing words as crimes. Beijing views certain words as incendiary, and Tiananmen is one of them.

On Chinese search sites it produces a blank. The regime is determined to erase the events of spring 1989 from Chinese history. Even gathering to discuss the protests and the killings is incendiary.

On May 3 this year, 15 people — professors and lawyers — gathered in a home in Beijing to reflect on the upcoming 25th anniversary of Tiananmen.

Two days later, five of the participants were arrested and charged with "creating a disturbance in a public place, causing serious disorder." All five remain in detention.

For the Chinese regime Tiananmen is a wound that will not heal as long as even a handful of people remember it. And so the continuous arrests and detentions and charges.

This year the crackdown appears tougher than before.

Three thousand dead

The irony is that it all seems so unnecessary. The erasure has largely worked. A new generation has only a hazy recognition, at best, of those events.

Yet, at the time, it was the young people who seemed about to crack the regime open. To add to the drama of hundreds of thousands of protesters in Beijing's main square that spring, the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, arrived for a state visit in May.

As a correspondent in Moscow I followed him. I had earlier been a reporter in Beijing at the beginning of the 1980s when it was a country so tightly controlled that what was taking place on Tiananmen would have seemed a mad dream.

Strolling among joyous young people voicing opinions, criticism and jokes about their leaders, which few would have whispered half a decade before, was stunning.

Gorbachev came to Beijing as the proponent of "glasnost" or openness. But China's leader, the diminutive Deng Xiaoping, wasn't interested, and indeed feared its consequences.

The day after Gorbachev left, China decreed martial law. Two weeks later the troops moved in, shooting.

Gorbachev at the time was a global superstar. Two and a half years later he was a man without a job, his country broken in 15 pieces. Glasnost was indeed dangerous.

Deng offered the Chinese another deal — get rich and leave the politics to the Communist Party. That implicit bargain, 25 years on, has made China a superpower.

And so, today, Liu Xiaobo remains in jail, the Communist Party is the only party in China, and words used a certain way remain crimes.

There is an unsettling Russian footnote to Tiananmen that casts Gorbachev in a somewhat less positive light.

According to official notes made public years later, the man of glasnost told his politburo on Oct. 4, 1989, four months after Tiananmen, "We must be realists. They [the Chinese leadership] have to defend themselves. So do we. Three thousand people, so what?"

Three thousand dead, and now relatively few in the country know or remember. It is taking a long time to boil the frog.

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      About the Author

      Don Murray

      Eye on Europe

      A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.