Opinion & Analysis

Amnesia prevails in China 30 years after Tiananmen Square

OPINION: The Melbourne journalist Louisa Lim, in her powerful and well-documented 2014 book, refers to China as the People’s Republic of Amnesia.

Many of the bright young Chinese students I have taught over the past 10 years or so, in China, Hong Kong and Melbourne, have never come to know anything whatsoever of what happened in Peking in those turbulent months of May and June 1989. Theirs is not a personal case of amnesia, of ‘forgetting’. The amnesia is state-created and systemic. There is nothing to remember, no basis of memory left. That past has been obliterated.

Yet as we look back 30 years later from our various havens outside China, in the perspective of the rise of the ever more thuggishly repressive and powerful regime that runs the country today, we can see quite clearly that those heady days were in fact the last of an era. They were the end of the 1980s, a period of (since 1949) unprecedented (if intermittent) freedom of thought and creativity. China’s youth of today may have grown accustomed to believing that theirs is the only Chinese society possible or imaginable. But for a few months in early 1989, millions of Chinese thought otherwise.

They were not just angry young students either: the street protests across the country drew in vast sections of the ‘ordinary’ Chinese population; factory workers, journalists, academics, artists, film-makers, public servants, even security officials. Since the brutal military crackdown and nightmarish witch-hunt that followed, along with the blanket denial of any ‘massacre’ or wrong-doing on the part of the government, all of that widespread 1989 enthusiasm and optimism for a ‘better more open society’ has been consigned to the Chinese ‘memory hole’, a hole which has become ever larger, ever more all-embracing and more effective with the increasing wealth, technological expertise and international ‘clout’ of the party-state.

Walking the streets of Shanghai, as I did this past April, in one of the world’s most affluent cities, one cannot remain unaware of the heavy pall of repression that overlays the misleading bright lights and prosperity, the constant obligation to deny and self-censor, to remain oblivious to truth, that blights even the brightest minds, that destroys the very seeds of creativity in every realm, threatening the spiritual health of the nation. This is the ongoing tragedy of the aftermath of 1989, of the nationwide amnesia of this great country and its people.

Our job today as well-informed citizens of the world is very simple. We must do our utmost to keep alive the facts, and the memory of what happened, to recall that year’s callous obliteration of hope and ideals. In doing so we should be inspired by the people of Hong Kong who flock to Victoria Park in their tens of thousands for the yearly candle-lit vigil in memory of Tiananmen.

Tiananmen Square

Tens of thousands flock to Hong Kong's Victoria Park. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons

We must continue to provide facts and analysis, pointing the public to the many sources still available to those of us lucky enough to live in the (relatively) ‘free world’. These sources include the excellent New Zealand-based website chinaheritage.net, from the Wairarapa Academy for New Sinology, written in the main by the Academy’s dedicated co-founder Professor Geremie Barmé, whose powerful 1995 film The Gate of Heavenly Peace (recently screened at the Contemporary China Research Centre in Wellington), still remains, together with its appended website, the best account of the events of 1989. For everyday information on current events in China, the California-based China Digital Times is a healthy correction to the all-pervading Chinese propaganda machine.

We owe this concerted effort not only to the memory of those who gave their lives in 1989, but also to the long-term cause of bringing China, with its superb tradition of enlightenment and tolerance, back into the global community. As Bertrand Russell so hopefully wrote in 1922: “Those who value wisdom or beauty, or even the simple enjoyment of life, will find more of these things in China than in the distracted and turbulent West, and will be happy to live where such things are valued. I wish I could hope that China, in return for our scientific knowledge, may give us something of her large tolerance and contemplative peace of mind.”

If only these hopes had been realised.

John Minford is Professor of Chinese Culture and Translation at Hang Seng University of Hong Kong, Emeritus Professor of Chinese at Australian National University and was Professor of Chinese at the University of Auckland from 1987-1991. Views expressed in this article are personal to the author.

- Asia Media Centre