remembering June 4: 1989, 1999, 2014

I heard something on the news the other day about how Chinese people have “amnesia” about the events of June 4th, the event we know as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, which happened 25 years ago today.

At first I felt that amnesia was not quite the right word, perhaps because I mistakenly thought they were implying that the Chinese people have chosen to forget. The words that come to my mind when thinking about this event are hiding, denying, repressing, rewriting, excising, suppressing… the government has suppressed and twisted the story of what happened during those student protests for the last 25 years. Most people don’t even know that there is something to remember. And bad things happen to people who do remember publicly.

China has not forgotten – the government remembers all too well, I suspect.

I saw a little bit of this first hand 15 years ago. I was in China at the end of April-beginning of May in 1999. I took a 10 day trip with some acquaintances while I was living in Japan. It was a poorly planned trip that I don’t recall with particular fondness (the word “idiots” springs to mind in relation to my travel companions, one of whom was a soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend) but of course it was an amazing experience, seeing a little slice of Communist China as it was transitioning into a industrial powerhouse and capitalist police state. People were selling their old Little Red Books, some complete with annotations, to tourists at outdoor flea markets.

world's largest kfc 1999

In early May we were in Beijing, walking down the big avenue from the world’s biggest KFC, towards the Forbidden City, past the monumental government buildings and what I think was the “parliament” building of the dictatorship, outside of which large numbers of white people were milling around in black tie, because the Communist government now rented this building out for special events. The contradictions were everywhere.

black tie event May 1999


Mao and me

But what we couldn’t find was Tiananmen Square. I felt pretty stupid actually. I mean, how could we not find the square? It was supposed to be right across from the entrance to the Forbidden City, where Chairman Mao still gazes down on tourists posing for photos. But all we saw was a block cordoned off with large barriers. I hadn’t conceived of how huge the square was at this point, or our discovery might have come faster. Tiananmen Square is a huge city block, completely flat and mostly empty, from what I could tell. I was expecting trees or architecture or something that would signal that this was a park. Although mostly I was looking for the “Maosoleum” which was inside the square. I was hoping we could go and see Mao’s preserved corpse – some classic Communist creepiness.

barriers May 1999

I didn’t know at the time that the Chinese people had been fed the lie that the massacre was a counter-revolutionary riot instigated by a conspiracy of Westerners intent on destroying China, just like they’d been trying to do since forever… I just knew that we were coming up on the 10th anniversary of the massacre, and I was curious to see how the city was dealing with that.

The answer: the entire square was cordoned off for months before and after June 4th, to allow for re-paving before the grand celebrations of the whatever-th anniversary of the People’s Glorious Revolution blah blah blah…


I had to acknowledge the brilliance of this strategy. There would be no memorials to the fallen, no gatherings or protests, no reminders of what happened here, because there was no “here” here.

Tiananmen Sq, May 1999

barriers May 1999

(It also meant the “Maosoleum” was closed, so I would never find out whether I could stomach the idea of a preserved Communist leader whose body may or may not be real.)

And then on May 7th 1999 something else happened that made me certain that the 10th anniversary of the massacre would not be on the minds of most people in China. The US accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. That was the last day we were in China. We got word of it the day we flew out, and never have I been so pleased to be leaving a country. At the time we commented that this was a very convenient turn of events for the Chinese government. Within days people had been whipped into a frenzy of anti-American feeling, and rocks were being thrown at Colonel Sanders and Ronald McDonald statues. I have every confidence that the government made good use of that sentiment and carried it well into June. Just another example of the west’s crimes against China…

I read this book review in the Telegraph online to fill in some of the gaps in my understanding of this event. I wonder if the word amnesia is showing up in news reports in part because of one of these titles – The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited.

The photos here were taken on a crappy film point and shoot that I later dropped in the Forbidden City. Got some (awesome) light leaks on a few photos, but it still worked, as long as you didn’t want to know how many shots you had left.



Thanks for stopping by.


UPDATE: I forgot to read this article from before I published this post! It also uses the word amnesia, and references that book. It gives more details, including statistics about how few Chinese young people even recognize the iconic “tank man” image. I wish I had taken a look at this article earlier because it confirmed my memory that the building that was rented out for black tie events was actually the Great Hall of the People. And I learned that Tiananmen Square was established in 1420, which blows my mind. And that it is really huge, although I am skeptical that a million people packed the square for Mao’s funeral.


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