As the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) clamps down on dissidents ahead of Friday’s anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, younger people living in mainland China are largely unaware of the momentous events of the spring of 1989.
Public memorials for the victims are banned, and any references to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s bloody suppression of the student-led protest movement are quickly deleted from the country’s tightly controlled internet.
The erasure of first-hand accounts from Beijing of the spring and early summer 1989 from the public record, and the official description of the protests as a “counterrevolutionary rebellion” or “political turmoil” have led to a stark generational divide in China, with younger people knowing little to nothing of what June 4, 1989 means to those over 40.
A high-school teacher from the central province of Hunan who gave only a surname, Zhen, said most of her students have never heard of June 4, 1989.
“From news media to teaching materials, this topic has been deliberately erased from textbooks, media, and other public domains,” Zhen told RFA.
“The average child, the younger ones, have never heard of it.”
“Others may have heard of it, but they don’t know the causes and the full story of the tragedy as it unfolded at the time,” he said.
Former liberal premier Hu Yaobang, whose death sparked a memorial gathering in Tiananmen Square that developed into weeks of protests, is rarely mentioned in history teaching materials, while late ousted premier Zhao Ziyang, who fell from grace after sympathizing with the students, has been erased from public accounts of the era.
“These people have been deliberately faded out of the public eye,” Zhen said.
“Information about leaders of any generation should be made known to the public, their good and bad points, so the people can make up their own minds,” he said. “Why can’t they let us decide?”
Public discussion of the events of 1989 is generally limited to official responses to questions from foreign media organizations, with the topic off-limits to China’s tightly controlled state media.
Strict controls on information
Hebei-based literary scholar and historiographer Li Hao said Zhen’s view is an accurate one.
“The CCP has had a monopoly on information [about that time], and they have silenced anyone who [was working in government] in that year,” Li said.
“Controls on information are very strict, as the government has control over all of the information sources, including the news media, social media, textbooks, other publications, literature, film, and television,” he said.
Even if some information makes it across the Great Firewall of government censorship, it will be quickly deleted.
“If you insist on discussing political topics that the government doesn’t like, they will take away your entire livelihood,” Li said.
“They want everyone united in their obsession with money, and with getting rich.”
“The new generation now only pays attention to money, eating and drinking and having fun,” he said. “Everyone is always on their mobile phones, liking this or that.”
“They like to beautify themselves … and they lack any concept of justice or an equitable society,” he said. “They think it’s something for others to care about, and has nothing to do with them.”