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Pro-democracy activists recreate one of the most iconic news photos of the modern era. (Photo: Jessica Hromas, Getty Images)
BEIJING — His name is still unknown, but to many Westerners, the single pedestrian who stopped a line of tanks near Tiananmen Square remains the iconic image of the protest that shook the world 25 years ago. In China, “Tank Man” is a nobody from a non-event.
The anniversary of the bloody crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy movement — which still defines China for many Americans — will pass Wednesday with little to no government acknowledgment of those killed by soldiers after seven weeks of peaceful, student-led protests in Tiananmen Square, the equivalent of the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
In Hong Kong, pro-democracy activists march to the Government Offices in Admiralty on June 1 to mark the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. (Photo: Jessica Hromas, Getty Images)
Today, the exact death toll from the protests remains unknown. The crackdown left 500 to 2,600 dead, according to Tiananmen Square, 1989: The Declassified History, published by the George Washington University’s National Security Archive. China’s official death toll is 246.
The pro-democracy movement and massacre are not even taught in Chinese schools, and images and information about the event are scrubbed from the Internet.
“Young people have very little idea what happened in 1989 and very little curiosity or interest,” says Louisa Lim, an NPR correspondent.
In four top Beijing colleges, just 15 out of 100 students shown the Tank Man photo last year could identify it, says Lim, author of China, The People’s Republic of Amnesia, which will be published Wednesday.
While many Chinese youth are tech-savvy enough to evade China’s Internet restrictions, “they have learned that politics is dangerous and it’s best to steer clear,” she says.
Those who do dare speak about the crackdown face arrest. In the weeks leading up to the anniversary, Amnesty International says, dozens of activists have been detained. Others have been placed under house arrest or reported missing.
“The response by the Chinese authorities to the 25th anniversary has been harsher than in previous years, as they persist with trying to wipe the events of 4 June from memory,” Salil Shetty, secretary-general of Amnesty International, said in a statement.
Still, Hu Jia, 40 — a dissident under house arrest for the past three months who, at 15, pushed buses into the road near his home to stop tanks headed for the square — is calling on Chinese citizens to mark the anniversary by visiting the square Wednesday wearing black clothes. Some wore the color last year, says Hu — who risks jail time for organizing others to protest, a major crime in the party’s eyes — convinced officials can’t ban black without being forced to explain why.
“The authorities can’t change my understanding and my memories,” he says. “It’s a very small number, but more young people are waking up and gaining an understanding than before.”
China’s Internet remains “an information prison to keep the truth out,” Hu says, but he uses software to evade the “Great Firewall of China” and push online campaigns such as “Return to Tiananmen,” which launched a year ago.
“The authorities use terror to shut people’s mouths,” he says, “but they are not God, and can’t make everything disappear.”
‘THEY’RE AFRAID OF US’
When Zhang Xianling needs groceries, she passes three state security personnel stationed to watch her ninth floor apartment. Another four wait downstairs, along with a police car she must take to reach the market or go anywhere.
That’s all because Zhang, 76, pursues justice for her son, Wang Nan, a student killed by an army bullet a quarter of a century ago when he was just 19.
Authorities prevent Zhang from meeting journalists or other Tiananmen Mothers, a group she co-founded in 1989 for relatives of those who died in the massacre. Ding Zilin, a spokesperson for the group, has been placed under house arrest, according to Amnesty International.
“At first we just did this for our kids, then we came to realize it’s a problem of our country’s political system,” Zhang says.
Despite years of intimidation and harassment — to stop Zhang from mourning her son, a surveillance camera is trained on the spot where he died — the Tiananmen Mothers persist in demanding a public investigation, a list of the dead and punishment for those responsible.
“They’re afraid of us, because we grasp the truth,” she says. “They killed so many people, this is not a government that takes responsibility. Justice is in our hands.”
For the government, that truth is that the protest was a “counterrevolutionary rebellion.” Hu despairs at such enforced ignorance.
“School textbooks lack the two characters 6/4; at most there’s one sentence referring to a ‘political disturbance,’ as they’ve shrunk it into a small-sounding case,” he says.
Today, Chinese authorities maintain that their decisive action ensured years of spectacular economic growth, transforming the nation into the world’s second-largest economy, one that is gaining fast on the U.S.
That notion has achieved wide acceptance in China, Lim says.
“People have largely believed this, as their lives have got better, and people have wanted to believe there was no other way,” she says.
In 1989, protesters called for a less corrupt, fairer government that could continue under party rule. But the party’s leadership saw a “near-death experience,” says Rana Mitter, a Chinese history and politics expert at Oxford University. As a result, the movement’s key influence was “making the party determined that whatever else happens, it must maintain a firm grip on power.”
Authorities now spend more on internal security — including suppressing dissidents — than external from “a great fear that the political settlement is very fragile,” Mitter says. Over the past 25 years, the ruling party has remained “alarmed by the prospect of more liberalization and understood the importance of economic growth to cement its legitimacy.”
In the past year, Chinese authorities have crushed a loose network of activists called the New Citizens Movement, a group that aims to expose the official corruption that was also a major focus of the 1989 demonstrations. Current party chief Xi Jinping, who has tightened Internet controls, leads a wide-ranging anti-corruption campaign, but makes no move toward creating the independent media, judiciary and anti-corruption agency China requires to tackle graft.
“There’s a crushing sense of disappointment that we see every time a new set of leaders comes into power,” says Lim. “People had hoped that Xi Jinping maybe would be a closet reformer, but there’s a sense now that we are further away than ever before to any re-evaluation of 1989.”
‘TRUTH WILL OVERCOME THEIR LIES’
Under close watch at home is Dai Qing, 73, a writer and environmental activist jailed for 10 months after Tiananmen, despite her efforts to get students off the square before they fell victim to the deadly crackdown.
“From some angles, I even understand a little why the people at the top think ‘stability’ is the most important, but it’s too much,” she says. “It shows they are so weak internally.”
Dai challenges the so-called “success” of post-Tiananmen China, pointing to rampant inequality and the denial of basic rights.
“As a Chinese, I should be proud and happy the central government is very rich, and we have powerful weapons,” she says. “No! Only when every person in this land feels really happy, then it is a strong country.”
Calls to action such as Hu’s make Dai nervous. Rather than risk revolution, Dai says, she hopes China’s people morph from “yes men” to ardent citizens.
“We want an education movement to change the slaves of the emperor to citizens,” she says. “Bit by bit, they’ll change the whole society and the political and economic system.”
Amid the despair and the strictest surveillance since 1989, the Internet offers hope as awareness is raised on social media, says Zhang, who will mourn her son at home.
“The Communist Party has such a long experience of brain-washing and telling lies, and they do it very well,” says Zhang. “I used to believe them. The party can fool many people, but the truth will overcome their lies.”