The words “惊天” (today) are blocked on Weibo right now. Because we all know what today is. If you’re on this blog, you know what today is. Even the least attentive have been counting down to it while going about our daily lives. And now, the time has finally come to take stock, 25 years later.
My entire life has been lived in the looming presence of the Tiananmen Massacre, but I didn’t understand that until I grew up. It’s not just my life, either. All of China lives there, in the shadow of it. The current regime constantly fights to censor it and keep it suppressed, but even where the Party line succeeds you can still see it from the emptiness: the space where it should be. Sometimes I feel like if I traced my finger back along the origins of any crackdown or power struggle in contemporary China I would end up in the Square on June 4th, 1989 every single time.
We are haunted by the spectre of it. It will not be laid to rest, but instead rises again and again to demand our attention. Every anniversary it seems China watchers and scholars try to reframe the events. Every anniversary another survivor comes forward and tells his or her story. A quarter of a century and we’re still holding vigil. Still trying to parse through the events of Tiananmen.
Because they were messy and complicated, and we need to give them our understanding. We need to look at events with the lens that cherishing students and young people is a deep-rooted Chinese belief. (“We are old now; it doesn’t matter.*”) Simultaneously, we need to shatter the perception that it was just students on the Square, or that protests were limited to just Beijing. We need to understand that the use of force came at the end of a hotly-contested power struggle in the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party, and that the decision to do so continues to directly shape the trajectory of Chinese politics.
What was attempted in Beijing was not an organized revolution but a hundred schools of thought fighting for the bullhorn. The number of protesters through May and June are unknown specifically, but at their height it is believed that 1 million people were in the capital. Imagine the summer heat in Beijing. It’s sweltering, I can attest to that. So humid you can’t breathe. Imagine hunger strikes in that weather. Imagine the fervor: those raised voices who could never seem to agree. Imagine, in the air, an impending tang of violence.
The students of 1989 erected a Goddess of Democracy in the Square. They were coming off the high of China in the 1980s—a time of Reform and Opening Up—with new experiences and ideas. A friend of my parents once talked to me about the first time he listened to Western classical music after it became unbanned. Another described teaching English in Beijing as his carefree youth. An entire generation of students was discovering the world and wanted more of it. But at the same time, unemployment, a lack of social mobility, and inflation were limiting their potential. They wanted the “Chinese dream.” That’s why they came to the Square.
Now, my mainland Chinese classmates sometimes ask me how I could care so much about “politics.” They’re all studying abroad with the intention of going home and building prosperous lives. And they don’t ask me with derision or fear coloring their voices: they’re genuinely mystified. As if the power struggles and secrecy of their own government didn’t have any effect on them or what they wanted to do with their lives. They aren’t alone in this perspective.
On top of my strange fascination with politics, I’m barely Chinese in their eyes. My Mandarin is accented. I was born in Ohio. Why should I care so much about things that are a world away?
My parents were students, but they were in the States already in 1989. There is a strong possibility that, had Tiananmen not happened, or had there not been an Executive Order granting Chinese students green cards in its wake, my parents would have returned to China. I was a second child: accidental and a girl. In my late teens, I put two and two together and realized that, basically, had Tiananmen not happened there’s a strong possibility I wouldn’t have been born at all. It’s a weird feeling, to have something so brutal and violent to thank for your existence. But ever since that discovery I’ve felt like Tiananmen hangs over me. That, as I myself am a consequence of it, I need to understand its other consequences.
Some things demand to be remembered. Even so, “缅怀” (nostalgia, remember/recall) is a banned word today. And we who live outside China must hold vigil for those who cannot. For a nation still not allowed to grieve, even 25 years later. And for a trajectory of suppression that’s still ongoing and so ingrained that young people don’t understand that there was a world without it.
A few months ago, my sister and I happened to be watching a documentary in a crowd of Chinese tourists. They showed a brief, violent second of the Tiananmen crackdown. “是中国吗？” (“Is that China?”) one of them whispered to another. They didn’t say anything else.