How To Forget An Atrocity

Andrew Sullivan —  Jun 3 2014 @ 8:35pm

Beijing is on lockdown as tomorrow’s 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square approaches:

Government control and interference is evident every year around the anniversary. China has referred to June 4 as “Internet maintenance day,” taking so many sites down for “fixes” that it is unclear which sites are being targeted with restrictions, reports The Washington Post. But this year, the crackdown has reached new levels.

Amnesty International reports arrests and detentions have been on the rise. Scores of activists, lawyers, students, academics, and relatives of those killed in 1989 have been detained, put under house arrest, or questioned, reports Time. Security around the public square has been so strict that tourists have had security officials bar them from the grounds, reports Time. Google services – including Gmail and translation services ­– have been interrupted since late last week, reports Bloomberg.

Lily Kuo remarks on how successfully the Chinese government has erased the events of June 4, 1989 from the collective memory:

[C]ontrary to what some activists might have hoped, the state-mandated erasure of the incident has been extremely effective. Only 15 out of 100 university students in Beijing recognize the iconic picture of “Tank Man” a demonstrator blocking the path of a line of tanks, according to The People’s Republic of Amnesiaa new book on the topic by NPR correspondent Louisa Lim. …

Scouring the Chinese internet for references to June 4 has become an annual event for the government’s censors, but this year’s efforts have gone further than ever before. All Google services in China, including gmail, are now being blocked on the mainland. … As in previous years, even circuitous mentions of June 4 on social media—including the Chinese characters for six and four together, for the date of June 4, the search term “four, open fire” or “25 years“— are being swiftly deleted by censors. China’s version of Wikipedia, Baike, has no entry for the entire year of 1989.

An anonymous Tea Leaf Nation contributor explains why the Internet has not made it any easier for Chinese youth to talk about the crackdown:

The immense interest among those jiulinghou [Chinese children of the 90s] who are in the know has not translated into active discussion, let alone action. Not all of us think it was wrong to use force against the protesters. And we certainly do not all think China should adopt Western-style democracy. But whatever our views are, we dare not openly discuss them online, in public forums, or even in private chats. And since the Internet is where my generation goes to communicate, we are essentially deprived of the chance to engage in civil discourse.

The Internet has chilled an honest reckoning with Tiananmen, not enabled it. While the web has given rise to a level of pluralism China has never seen before, and minted new, grassroots opinion leaders, it has also made everything we write, both in public and in private, more easily surveilled. Before the digital era, officials didn’t have the ability to eavesdrop on every conversation. But now, if I post something politically sensitive online, the conversation is digitally recorded. Everything becomes part of our permanent record.

But Ellen Bork suggests that “China’s communist leaders may find their efforts to suppress memory backfire”:

According to Min Xin Pei, a scholar of totalitarian transitions at Claremont McKenna College, half of China’s population was born after 1976. They don’t remember the chaotic and violent Cultural Revolution in which millions were sent to perform manual labor in the countryside, as marauding Red Guards sowed paranoia among family and friends. Might this contribute to a change of rule one day? “The basis of rule of all authoritarian regimes is one simple fact—fear,” Pei told an audience at the National Endowment for Democracy. “A psychological shift can come very very quickly.” What that shift will bring, no one can say for sure. But the world will have had at least 25 years to prepare for it.

Meanwhile, Heather Timmons contrasts the mainland’s information blackout with the scene in Hong Kong, where the event is well remembered:

Hong Kong is gearing up for its annual candlelight vigil to mark the anniversary, which is expected to attract more than 150,000 people. Local universities are sponsoring exhibitions and talks by witnesses and journalists (including the “Tank Guy” photographer). The Foreign Correspondents Club is screening a documentary featuring interviews with witnesses and journalists who covered the protests.

On a more personal scale, hundreds of groups of Hong Kong families and friends are expected to gather in their homes on the evening of June 4 to commemorate the eventThat will include many people from mainland China, tens of thousands of whom have obtained Hong Kong residency since 1989. At the candlelight event, “in recent years we have noticed more people from mainland China,” said Richard Tsoi, the vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China.