Twenty-five years ago, China’s Communist leaders sent soldiers and tanks against unarmed protesters, mostly students, in Tiananmen Square in one of the bloodiest and most brutal crackdowns in modern history. At least several hundred, and possibly several thousand, were killed.
Dan Southerland, who was The Washington Post's Beijing bureau chief at the time, said the demonstrations started mid-April in 1989, first as a way to honor then-Communist Party Secretary Hu Yaobang, who was admired by some students. But it quickly evolved into protests calling attention to corruption among officials and then later demanding a more open system. Watch the video below, in which Southerland describes in detail the scene on the streets and what followed.
Since then, China has made every attempt to erase the traces of what happened in Tiananmen Square, including censoring the Internet.
But as my colleague William Wan reported from Beijing, in recent years, a small group of dissident artists are re-imagining the bloody crackdown and, through their work, telling the stories about what happened 25 years ago. One such artist, Liu Yi, painted this art below — a series of black-and-white portraits of people he imagined were killed by Chinese soldiers. “I can’t explain why, but I felt a need to do something for the people who died,” the artist said. “Once I finished the [painting] series, I felt a kind of peace.”
Many Chinese who led the protests were arrested and imprisoned after 1989. There were students like Wang Dang, who helped start a hunger strike during the protests, and then there were Communist officials like Bao Tong, whose sympathy for student protesters got him purged from his own party. Both of them were charged with acting against the state. And the man who is thought to have ordered the use of soldiers against the students, then-Premier Li Peng, has retired, and little is known of his whereabouts.
Today, many of the key players in the Tiananmen Square massacre live vastly different lives, some remain in China and keep relatively low profiles, while others have sought asylum and moved to the West.
In a story last year, Wan wrote about the struggle many Chinese who witnessed the Tiananmen protests face today, as they try to explain to their children what happened that day. Wan wrote about people like Qi Zhoying — he lost his leg after a soldier shot him — who couldn't tell his daughter how he lost a leg, but also worried that staying silent and hiding the real story about Tiananmen contributes to the gradual purge of China’s collective memory.
"If she understands early how the party operates this country, she will be better prepared to handle life and to face the problems of this society," Qi said in an interview with The Post. "Now she cannot be fooled by the party."
When June 4 approaches every year, China does its best to control the narrative about Tiananmen. Two years ago, the government blocked access to search terms related to the anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown. No results were returned on Chinese search engines for phrases such as ''six four'' (referring to June 4), "23'' (the anniversary that year), ''never forget'' or "candle'' (a reference to a candlelight vigil authorities sought to discourage). The country has gone as far as to call June 4 ''Internet maintenance day,'' in which Web sites might be down for fixes, a move that clouds which sites have been restricted.
On Sunday, Chinese authorities arrested Guo Jian, an artist who took part in Tiananmen protests, after his profile appeared in the Financial Times. As the Associated Press reports, police have warned foreign journalists not to cover any sensitive issues leading up to the anniversary or face “serious consequences.”
Click below to read our latest coverage of the Tiananmen Square protests:
- Tiananmen's memories lives on in the work of dissident artists
- Where are the key players from 25 years ago?
- The Chinese artist who painted "X" on Mao Zedong's face
- Video | The crackdown at Tiananmen, 25 years later
- Witnesses to Tiananmen struggle with what to tell children