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Tiananmen Square massacre resonates in China despite enforced ‘amnesia’

June 4, 2014 at 8:47 PM EDT
Twenty-five years after hundreds of pro-democracy protesters were massacred in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, officials in the city prevented any attempt to mark the anniversary. Jeffrey Brown talks with Louisa Lim of NPR and Xiao Qiang of University of California, Berkeley for insight on how the incident is remembered, and how it helped shape today’s China.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Jeffrey Brown picks up the story from there.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, how are the events of 25 years ago viewed today in China? And how have those events helped shape today’s China?

For that, we turn to Louisa Lim, who’s covered China for the last decade, first for the BBC and now for NPR. She’s the author of “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited.” And Xiao Qiang is an adjunct professor at the University of California at Berkeley. He’s the founder and editor in chief of China Digital Times, a bilingual China news Web site.

Louisa Lim, let me start with you.

You used the word amnesia. You have a very telling story in your book about taking an image, that famous photo we just saw of the man standing in front of the tank, and showing it to a bunch of university students. Most of them who didn’t know what it was.

LOUISA LIM, NPR: Tiananmen Revisited”: That’s right, I took that picture and I took it around four Beijing universities, those that had been most instrumental in the protests in 1989, and I showed it to 100 students.

And I was really surprised at the level of ignorance. Most of them just looked at it with completely blank faces, no flicker of recognition whatsoever. People asked me questions like, is it Kosovo? Is it South Korea? One person said, it looks like Tiananmen, but it can’t be.

Out of 100 students, only 15 recognized that image. So, I think that really shows the success of the Chinese government in enforcing amnesia, especially amongst young people.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Xiao Qiang, how much is Tiananmen still a memory or important for dissidents in China? And how strong is that dissident movement today?

XIAO QIANG, University of California, Berkeley: Well, I would even say the Tiananmen generation is now simply using the word dissidents, because, remember, 25 years ago, that was an entire generation of Chinese. Even just college students alone, nationwide, participating in the pro-democracy demonstration.

And Beijing, there’s millions and millions of citizens, too, and nationwide. So all of these people, most of us, are alive, and bearing the real remembrance. But it’s been suppressed, been brutally suppressed. And then, the 25 years later, this trauma and this memory, where did it exactly go?

It’s a question of to answer many questions — it’s a question that needs to be answered, but it’s also the answer will tell us where China is going to go tomorrow.

Let’s say Louisa’s question. Many young generations doesn’t know about Tiananmen Square. That is quite true. If you go to China and then you visit a lot of people, you will find the Chinese Communist Party did a very well job — good job on that.

But, on the other hand, on the Internet, you will see the fear of the party, the over 155 keywords being banned relating to the Tiananmen massacre June 4, including — starting from yesterday, including the word, Chinese word today.

It means, if you will search the Chinese today, on the Internet, will surface lots of memorial discussions and articles. Therefore, the censor has to ban that search word.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me ask.

Louisa, you use the term pivot. You talk about Tiananmen as kind of a key pivot leading from one China to today’s China. In what way does it still live on, reverberate and shape what China is today?

LOUISA LIM: Well, I think the party’s post-Tiananmen strategy was absolutely instrumental in shaping the China that we see today.

You know, the decision was made to allow economic liberalization without political reform. And that is the path that China follows to this day. Deng Xiaoping, who was the paramount leader at the time, also made the decision that more patriotic education was needed among the youth.

That was his only regret. He thought that was the big lesson of Tiananmen, that they needed to know more about the country, what it had been in the past and what it was now, at that time. And that has really — there’s been this enormous patriotic education campaign which has really produced this generation of young nationalists that we see today.

And then, of course, the other big legacy from 1989 was the birth of this security apparatus, whose tasks include, as Xiao Qiang mentioned, monitoring the Internet and censoring it, as well as putting dissidents under house arrest or constant surveillance just to try to stop any more mass incidents like Tiananmen from ever happening again.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Xiao Qiang, we offer the term grand bargain, as in young — especially for young people, younger generation, of being offered a kind of economic prosperity in exchange for, in essence, giving up a kind of political freedom.

Is that how all this has felt or worked out for younger generation today?

LOUISA LIM: That is a part of story, if you look at China in the past 25 years.

But I must say, Tiananmen is an unfolding story. We have not seen the real ending yet. The — the grand bargain could only work so much. Where is increase in economic and social freedom? Where is the new individualistic generations growing up and that became mature and becoming more middle-class?

And the more demand for political participation and more demands for freedom of expression and freedom of association is growing in China, and especially through the Internet and the cell phones that — to facilitate such demand and voices. And I can see that as a trend over the past decade clearly.

So even there is a party’s effort that — to erase the memory, but there is another trend which is counter that and eventually will prevail, which is the people, including Chinese people, has to live in the truth. They cannot make the — completely forget this part of history, because it’s right in the heart of the nation’s soul.

JEFFREY BROWN: Louisa, did you see that in your reporting for this book, that the economic aspirations are leading to more political aspirations as well?

LOUISA LIM: Yes.

I mean, there is certainly — we are seeing a great deal more mass incidents, as the Chinese euphemistically call protests, bursting out all over China. The last for which there were official figures was 2010, and there were 180,000 protests in China.

And, I mean, the issues, some of them are different from the issues back in 1989. Nowadays, there are a lot of protests about land seizures, about environmental problems. But then some of the issues are the same, for demands for more political participation, protests against local corruption, against abuse of power, and against official profiteering.

And I think that is one reason why the Tiananmen and the events of 1989 remain so potent today, that the demands of those protesters marching in 1989 are still unrealized, and they are more pressing than ever today.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We will leave it there.

Louisa Lim and Xiao Qiang, thank you both very much.

LOUISA LIM: Thank you.

LOUISA LIM: Thank you.