Chinese state media makes a rare admission that yes, something did happen on June 4, 1989


In this two-picture combo, a file photo taken June 5, 1989, top, shows a lone Chinese man standing to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Changan Blvd. near Tiananmen Square, and in a May 27, 2014 photo of the same spot, bottom, almost 25 years later, a convoy of cars drive across Beijing's Changan Blvd. near Tiananmen Square. A quarter century after the Communist Party’s attack on demonstrations centered on Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, the ruling party prohibits public discussion and 1989 is banned from textbooks and Chinese websites. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener, top, Helene Franchineau, bottom)

On June 4, 2014, Chinese state media spent most of the day ignoring something that happened 25 years ago on that date.

There was virtually no mention of the street protests in Tiananmen Square leading up to that date, or the bloody military crackdown that ended the protests. Instead, as my colleague Ishaan Tharoor noted, the English-language Twitter accounts of outlets like Global Times and China Daily spent the day tweeting out pictures of pandas and other non-controversial things.

If you looked closely, however, you could see some signs that yes, something had happened on June 4, 1989. First, the Global Times published an unsigned op-ed on Wednesday -- June 4 -- that justified "China's crackdown on illegal activities in the public sphere."

"Chinese society still remembers how poor we were 25 years ago," the op-ed says. "But the country has grown into the world's second largest economy today."

Then, on Thursday, June 5, a U.S. official statement led state news agency to publish an article titled "China rejects U.S. statement on June 4 incident." That article was also vague about what exactly happened on June 4, 1989:

The spokesman said clear conclusions have been reached on the political incident which happened in the late 1980s as well as issues related to that incident.

A similar construction was used to describe the events of June 4, 1989 in an article criticizing comments made by Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga:

"Clear conclusions have been reached on the political incident that happened in the late 1980s as well as issues related to that incident. The Chinese government consistently values safeguarding and protecting human rights, and great achievements in China's human rights endeavor and economic and social development over the past thirty-plus years since reform and opening up have attracted worldwide attention," [Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei] said in a statement released on Thursday morning.

Okay, it's not much. But given how little China talks about Tiananmen Square these days, these acknowledgements are significant.

Of course, in the immediate aftermath of that June 4 it was obviously hard keep quiet the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands of people in the center of Beijing (not to mention the protests all around the country that had preceded them). Here's how Christopher Beam described the official response in a Slate article back in 2009:

The state did give its own version of events immediately after the violence in 1989. Chinese television showed ragged protesters with black arm bands throwing Molotov cocktails and army vehicles set on fire. It showed People's Liberation Army soldiers helping people who were hurt. The only deaths it acknowledged were the deaths of People's Liberation Army soldiers—several were burned alive in their vehicles—who were declared martyrs. One example of the government's interpretation of events is the infamous image of a man in a white shirt blocking four Chinese tanks. At the time, the Western media pushed the "Tank Man" as a symbol of Chinese military might bearing down on its own people. Chinese television broadcast the entire video—in which the tanks try to drive around him before he finally disappears into the crowd—to show how much restraint the soldiers used.

In a speech just days after the deaths, Deng Xiaopeng made a speech that described the protesters as "not just some ordinary people who were misguided, but also a rebellious clique and a large quantity of the dregs of society." Later leaders have been less harsh and more dismissive. In 2000, Jiang Zemin told CBS' "60 Minutes" that the violence was justified because "we could not possibly allow people with ulterior motives to use the students to overthrow the government under the pretext of democracy and freedom." In 2012, Hu Jintao appeared to ignore a reporter from Hong Kong who asked him about June 4, 1989.

Given this history of suppression, it's no surprise that so few young Chinese citizens seem fully aware the events of Tiananmen Square 25 years later. In Louisa Lim's new book "The People's Republic of Amnesia," she writes that just 15 out of the 100 students at Beijing's top universities she asked could identify the iconic "Tank Man" image.

In the Global Times' June 5 article, that silence was taken as a strength. "The younger generation has avoided being misled by forces antagonistic to China's current political system," the unnamed author writes. "Chinese society has never forgotten the incident 25 years ago but not talking about it indicates the attitude of society."

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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