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Why remember the past? The case of Tiananmen

Tiananmen, or Gate of Heavenly Peace, by Chinese artist Chen Guang, a former PLA soldier who photographed and painted the 1989 uprisings Chen Guang/Liao Liao 1971

Most people know from daily experience that memories are vital for their sense of well-being. Memory is the bearer of lavish gifts. It strengthens our capacity for living in the present. Memory brings direction. It prompts us to move on, to imagine different futures.

When it comes to whole political orders, the remembrance of things past is unquestionably complicated by the vexed facts of organised power. Collective memories, what people believe about their past as a people, are never innocent; they’re always political. It’s not just that the past is manipulable by well-organised interests. Cunning rulers treat memories as a weapon, as a box of political tricks to be played on the dead and on the living.

George Orwell rightly noted how rulers who control the present always control the past, which is to say, in ruder words, political bosses are typically amnesiacs, confabulators and liars. They try to win over their subjects by getting them to swallow their particular version of what happened once upon a time.

The slanted remembrance of things past thereby produces victims. Unofficial memories are shoved aside, or outlawed. When that happens, powerful rulers inflict a double injustice on their opponents: they rob them of their public right to remember and drown them in a deep sea of painful private memories.

The dialectics of forcible forgetting decided the fate of Ya Aiguo, a young student gunned down in Beijing by the people’s army on the night of June 3, 1989. In Chinese, ai means “to love” and guo means “country”. Aiguo indeed loved his country. He never intended to overthrow the Chinese government; he felt he was doing something right.

Like most of his comrades, the diffuse spirit of reform socialism was in his blood. Aiguo was a patriot, a firm believer in a fairer China, a supporter of the Patriotic Democracy Movement, the name chosen by his fellow student protesters.

The murder of young Ya Aiguo - murder it was - devastated his father, Ya Weilin. Each and every year, for 23 years, he silently mourned the death of the son he loved. Weilin and his wife, both of them active supporters of the Tiananmen Mothers, tried repeatedly to petition the authorities. They begged an explanation, pleaded for an apology.

Ya Weilin (right) and his wife, Zhang Zhengxia, with their murdered son, Ya Aiguo, Beijing, 2007 Jakarta Post/ABC

They never received so much as a rice grain of reply. So in 2012, a few days before the anniversary of the June 4 events (liu si 六四), symbolised by the Tiananmen massacre, 73-year-old Ya Weilin hanged himself in a disused car park in Beijing. A video testimony recorded several years before revealed his inner turmoil:

Why did you use real guns and bullets on your people? Even if you kill a chicken, or a lamb, you should apologise and compensate, right? Such a big China, such a big Chinese Communist Party, you killed my son, but you didn’t even say sorry. Are we citizens not allowed to say a single word?

A haunting “no” is the terse answer of the rulers of China. Their conspiracy of silence is especially spooky because Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang and the rest of the CCP leadership are acutely aware that in the People’s Republic of Amnesia (Louisa Lim’s wonderful phrase) memory is among the most delicate and dangerous subjects. The leadership knows well that in the spring months of 1989 blood flowed after millions of citizens, demanding an end to government corruption and dishonesty, occupied the streets and public buildings of hundreds of Chinese cities.

They might even be aware of a strange paradox: as each year passes, the June 4 events grow more significant, and more dangerous. June 4 was the Prague Spring moment of Chinese politics. It signalled the end of socialism and the birth of something much more radical: a robust new form of democratic politics and civil society committed to rescuing the people of China from lawless corruption, rotten air, wealth inequality, “stability maintenance” and the hubris of one-party rule.

Judging by the wave of arrests during recent weeks, Guo Jian among them, the Chinese authorities are acutely aware that today, exactly a quarter of a century later, the June 4 events are being remembered worldwide, in hundreds of cities, by many hundreds of thousands of citizens. Thanks especially to CNN coverage, this was the first-ever global media event witnessed live by foreign politicians and diplomats, in order to decide what they should do next.

The June 4 anniversary has since assumed a life of its own. It is now a global protest phenomenon, a trend that raises puzzling questions about the confabulated amnesia of the authorities.

Tiananmen Square protests, late May/early June 1989

Why do they bite their tongues? Why don’t the Communist Party authorities simply do the right thing, and publicly own up? How come they persistently damage their global reputation by dishing out rough treatment to Liu Xiaobo, Ai Weiwei, Chen Guangcheng and other “troublemakers” with matchless memories?

Is it perhaps because they feel ashamed that the June 4 popular uprisings were ruthlessly crushed by troops and agents of their own People’s Liberation Army? Are they secretly sorry that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innocent victims were mowed down by tanks and troops armed with assault rifles? Do they feel discomfort that in Tiananmen Square, during a night of great violence, the giant white Goddess of Democracy was brought crashing to the ground; or that next day, in broad daylight, as if performing a miracle, an unidentified citizen, dressed in simple shoes, a white shirt and black trousers, armed only with shopping bags, managed single-handedly to stop a convoy of tanks in its tracks?

The destruction of the Goddess of Democracy, by an army truck pulling a steel cable, Tiananmen Square, in the early hours of June 4 1989, rare photographs taken by an unknown citizen John Keane/lifeanddeathofdemocracy

Truth is the CCP leadership cares nothing for these facts. It feels neither remorse nor shame. With each passing day, the CCP leadership grows more confident that the worship of money and the advance of consumerism and state-sponsored national pride together guarantee that the tides of amnesia are flowing in its favour.

In the new 21st-century China, a country whose young people know little or nothing of what happened at Tiananmen, the authorities are sure forgetfulness is on their side. Hence they no longer feel the need (as Deng Xiaoping did using big words) to explain away June 4 as a plot to destroy “socialism” by establishing “a totally Western-dependent bourgeois republic” committed to bringing China “onto the capitalist road”.

Things are now much simpler, or so the ruling authorities think. In this conviction they’re probably deluded, but for them June 4 is much more than living proof that their regime now has the upper hand in the struggle against Tibetans, Uighurs and other “counter-revolutionaries”, especially those who cling to the old-fashioned belief in remembering as a weapon against arbitrary rule. For the Chinese authorities, Tiananmen is above all a fist in the pocket of power. It’s a silent warning from the past, a tap on the shoulder of the present, a roundabout reminder to the people of China that whenever in future the chips are down, the ruling authorities are quite prepared to repeat June 4, to practise once again the dictum of Mao Zedong that state power ultimately comes from the barrel of guns.

The aftermath, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, by Chen Guang Chen Guang/Liao Liao 1971


In commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen uprising, this is a contribution to a public event organised by the Sydney Democracy Network, in cooperation with the Australian Institute of International Affairs (NSW branch) and the China Democracy Forum.