The historical significance of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests to the new generation of Chinese activists

"Therefore, our goal is to overthrow this unjust regime, instead of expecting it to correct its wrongdoing, hoping that this regime will show justice."

For most of the Hong Kong people, they might have different viewpoints regarding the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests, but in general, they agree that June Fourth Massacre, or the series of Protests on Tiananmen Square was a genuine historical event, it was reality and is history. However, to those who have grown up in China after 1989, they might not know about this historical event. The Chinese Government has systematically covered it up ever since its occurrence. It is not mentioned anywhere in China and it is not surprising the generation who were born after 1989, have never learned about it. In this interview, two Chinese civil society activists, Xiao Ru (pseudonym) and Zhao Sile, who is currently studying in the United States, both were born in the 1990s in China, recalled that they first encountered the term June 4th when they participated in civil society movement during their time in the college.

 

Disappeared history, erased memories

“Growing up in a village in southern China, I knew nothing about June Fourth until I took part in a volunteers’ activity in the university. A senior schoolmate showed us the documentary film, namely ‘The Gate of Heavenly Peace’, it was the first time I was aware its occurrence.” Xiao Ru recalled. It came as a shock to her. “At that time I was a university student, seeing that back in 1989, those university students who scarified themselves for the same value I shared. Later they became my spiritual support as I decided to continue participating in the social movement.” Due to the CCP ’s tightening news censorship and oppressive social atmosphere, it was extremely difficult for her to learn more about June Fourth movement. "Although I read some more information about June 4th as I bypassed internet censorship during my college time, I had to wait until I went abroad to read extensively about it."

Zhao Sile also learned about June Fourth coincidentally when she was in the university. “I was a civil reporter in the university and released an online article. A reader got interested and recommended me some software to bypass internet censorship and some websites about June 4th. It was my first encounter of June 4th.” However, it was not easy to have free internet access. She could only understand the subject in depth, when she went to study in Taiwan. “A classmate invited me to a lecture hosted by Wang Dan (one of the prominent student leaders in the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests), so I went to the library to do some research. Then I saw those pictures of the massacre. My mind got blown up, I saw how the authoritarian regime’s brutality and I was so upset.”, shortly after that, she cut her long hair short and vowed to be a dissident.

Xiao Ru and Zhao Sile are the blessed ones, who can leave the country and enjoy the freedom to reflect and research. In today’s China, June Fourth is still a political taboo and one is not allowed to discuss it, let alone to memorialize it. “Now, in the evening of each June 4th, I would hold a picture of it and light a candle to memorialize the students and workers who scarified themselves.” Xiao Ru has returned to China and she would have risked herself tremendously if she would discuss and memorialize June Fourth with other Chinese labor activists. Therefore, she did it in private. “Among my friends and comrades, some know about June 4th but some don’t, those who know about it would have a better understanding.”

 

Facing the same bloodthirsty regime

Though the killing has stopped, it is still the same regime ruling China. The suppression still goes on, but it adopts a different tactic. “Nowadays the regime has become much smarter. Instead of bloodshed, it uses media, cultural discourse and social surveillance to isolate activists and dissidents. The government is highly recognized by the common people and given the strict social surveillance and news censorship, people seldom have access to information about social movement, let alone they would show sympathy and support to the protesters.” the activists described.

Zhao Sile believes that the essence of the CCP regime has never changed. "The Communist Party of China has been adapting itself to rationalize the legitimacy of its rule since its establishment. After June 4th, to save its image, the CCP has tried its best to play a responsible role in the world for two decades. This explains why ten years ago, the civil society in China enjoyed more freedom than now. With China ’s increasing national strength, the CCP no longer needs the civil society to mitigate social dissatisfaction, or to please the international community, therefore Xi Jinping has been adopting heavy-handed measures to wipe out the civil society, as he thinks he is strong enough now.”

 

Reshaping the June Fourth discourse

As the CCP deliberately avoids discussing June 4th and downplaying its significance, attempting to erase this historical event from the people’s collective cognition, the two interviewees believe that while safeguarding our June 4th memory, we also need to reposition the framework of the June 4th discourse. "Our position on June 4 must not stop simply at the political level.” Xiao Ru emphasized that people's economic demands such as unfair distribution of resources and disparity between the rich and the poor were often ignored by mainstream discourses. "In fact, people's dissatisfaction and anger at the uneven distribution, which was caused by the early economic reform and opening up policy, was one of the main reasons for the student movement to win sympathy and support from the workers. We must incorporate these economic demands and workers' dissatisfaction into the June Fourth discourse. The social phenomena of the historical event must be fully revealed. These social phenomena share many similarities with the current social and economic situation. We should learn from them to get inspiration for future social movements.”

As for Zhao Sile, she is concerned that if it is necessary to continue chanting the slogan of "Seek an official reassessment of the June Fourth crackdown". "From the moment the June Fourth massacre started, this regime could no longer represent the people, because it coerced and oppressed the people. Therefore, our goal is to overthrow this unjust regime, instead of expecting it to correct its wrongdoing, hoping that this regime will show justice and "redress June 4th." At the same time, we also need to protect this historical memory as a reference for confronting totalitarianism. Just as Hong Kong people will always remember the anti-extradition bill movement, as their collective cognition of anti-totalitarianism. To go along with the evolution of history, we should keep enriching the discourse of history, instead of selectively clearing out some of them to forget. "