Thu, May 09, 2019 - Page 9 News List

China is shaping its own narrative with selective memory

This year’s anniversaries of the 1919 and 1989 student protests in China again highlight the government’s contradictory attitudes toward the two movements

By Denise Y. Ho

This is a big year for anniversaries in China. On Saturday, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) commemorated the centennial of the May Fourth Movement, the student-led protests in front of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1919 that marked the birth of Chinese nationalism.

Then, one month later, on June 4, will come the 30th anniversary of the violent suppression of pro-democracy student protests at the same site.

This milestone, by contrast, will not be officially acknowledged, much less commemorated, in China.

The 1919 demonstrations are immortalized in stone on the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square. Referring to the same ideals of science and democracy, the protesters in 1989 also presented themselves as loyal to the nation.

However, the 1989 movement ended in what is known outside China as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and within China as the “Tiananmen incident.” The events of three decades ago are a taboo subject in China, scrubbed by the authorities from the Internet and largely unknown to the country’s younger generation.

It is a persistent contradiction that the Chinese state claims the mantle of May 4 while repressing the memory of June 4.

The students of 1919 are celebrated as outspoken patriots, in keeping with a long Chinese tradition that places the intellectual in a role of social responsibility. The ideal student of imperial times took great risks to speak truth to power, to expose official corruption and spur reform.

University students in the early 20th century inherited this legacy. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) actually has its roots in the May Fourth Movement: Student periodicals spread Marxist ideas, a Marxist study group was founded at Peking University and Mao Zedong (毛澤東) himself embraced Marxism-Leninism as a student worker in the library.

As the May Fourth Movement has broad and popular resonance in China, the student protesters of 1989 — sporting long hair and blue jeans, rather than long gowns and pleated skirts — consciously referred to it.

As their predecessors did, they emphasized their patriotism, pointing out official corruption and the economic inequalities that had resulted from the post-Mao economic reforms.

Yet the Chinese state branded the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest a “counterrevolutionary riot,” and blamed a handful of conspirators for misleading the people.

Despite the world’s attention, the movement ended in a crackdown, followed by official silence and a public amnesia that worsens by the year.

The June 4 anniversary nonetheless remains politically sensitive, and the Chinese state always goes into high alert in the lead-up to it. In what has become an annual ritual, foreign journalists in China are blocked from covering the anniversary — as Louisa Lim (林慕蓮), a former BBC and National Public Radio Beijing correspondent, has said.

Since 1989, the CCP has made every effort to bind young people to the Chinese state and its priorities. Children take lessons in “patriotic education,” fidelity is cultivated through the Young Pioneers of China and the Communist Youth League, and universities have developed elaborate systems to guard against political deviance and reward political loyalty with jobs.

To a large extent, such efforts have made Chinese youth apolitical. The May Fourth legacy has effectively been divided, with patriotism cleaved apart from protest.

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