Why China has forgotten ‘Tank Man’? Remembering the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations

Thirty years ago, pro-democracy protests in Beijing were suppressed with lethal force – yet are barely mentioned in China today. BBC correspondent Robin Brant asks why 1989’s Tiananmen Square demonstrations have been erased from its memory

Protester Blocking Tanks Approaching Tiananmen Square

China’s Communist Party leaders want their people to help build a “beautiful, democratic” society. I know, because I’ve seen the propaganda slogan, by the side of a road in Beijing, exhorting passing drivers to do their bit. This mantra was announced on two prominent red statues standing at an intersection a couple of miles from Tiananmen Square.

Advertisement

The day I saw it was exactly 30 years after the vast protest in the square was crushed by the army on 4 June 1989. The democracy that China’s leaders talk of now is very, very different from the democracy that the gathered masses in the square wanted three decades ago.

This year, I encountered reports of police checking the IDs of more people than usual around the square on 4 June. The barriers surrounding the pole that is the centre of the daily flag-raising ritual were set wider than usual. But there were no large-scale special measures in place for the 30th anniversary of the protests. There didn’t need to be.

The photo of a man blocking a column of tanks is the iconic image of those few tumultuous days – in the west, at least. In China, it’s far from widely recognised

There is no official commemoration of what’s known colloquially here as 64 or 6489, referring to the date of the state crackdown. Hundreds – more likely thousands – of people died that day. Some were crushed by tanks; others were shot. Most died in the roads approaching the square. Some soldiers who targeted those people protesting were turned on, or even lynched by, crowds of protestors. Yet, despite the horrific end to what was a peaceful protest, it is barely mentioned in China today.

A colleague of mine reviewed several Chinese school textbooks to look for accounts of the protest and its suppression; they found no mention. The official historical record of that time from Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, refers only to the “political turbulence” in Beijing.

The long-lens photograph of ‘Tank Man’, a lone individual with shopping bags blocking a column of tanks on 5 June, the day after the violence, is the iconic image of those few tumultuous days – in the west, at least. In China, it’s far from a widely recognised image. To this day, it’s not known who he is or was.

Official revisionism has been hugely successful, and it has been reinforced by China’s ever-tighter control over the internet within its borders. Only with a type of technology called a virtual private network (VPN), which can circumvent state censorship, can people here read about the ‘turbulence’ of 1989. And many are nervous to even discuss awareness of that kind of system. One family friend, who asked if I had visited Beijing to report on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, wouldn’t refer to a VPN out loud in conversation.

The early hours of that Sunday in early June marked the death of democratic reform in China. But economic reform followed – not a broad, incremental privatisation, but reform more focused on consolidating huge, state-run entities. China also became far more open to foreign investment, which in fact had already begun. The American fast-food chain KFC, for example, had opened its first restaurant in China two years before the protest – on the edge of Tiananmen Square.

Yet it has been argued by both Chinese state-run media and impartial observers that 4 June 1989 did mark the moment when the China we see today was forged. The former sees the decision to crush the protest with overwhelming fatal force as ‘correct’. On the eve of the 30th anniversary of the crackdown, the English-language newspaper Global Times described the army’s action as a “vaccination” that gave China “immunity against turmoil”.

Other commentators have suggested that the decision emboldened the Communist Party leadership – who had been split over how to respond to the protests – in its authoritarianism. Coupled with the further economic reforms that followed, this tougher stance empowered China to become the world’s second largest economy.

China is far more open to the outside world today. It’s far more wealthy, too, with far fewer people living in poverty. But the democracy that the dead protestors wanted is now just a word in a propaganda slogan on a statue that most drivers won’t even see as they speed past on a busy road.

Robin Brant is China correspondent for the BBC

Advertisement

This article was taken from issue 17 of BBC World Histories magazine