25 Years on from Tiananmen

Nick Holdstock, author of our forthcoming book China’s Forgotten People, has written for VICE UK about the 25th anniversary and legacy of the Tiananmen Square student demonstrations.

25 Years on from TiananmenWriting for VICE Nick Holdstock explains that Tiananmen remains for outsiders the day the world saw China’s totalitarianism in action:

It’s easy to say what the Tiananmen Square demonstrations meant for many outside China. It framed the little most of us knew about the country, cementing, or perhaps creating, the image of China as a totalitarian country where people lack personal freedom.

Though as Holdstock pursues, the problem with focusing on Tiananmen is that while it was both the literal and symbolic centre of the protest movement, it has obscured what was happening in the rest of the country:

protests and demonstrations took place in most major cities, and the ripples of these spread even wider, to places like Fuling, a town on the banks of the Yangtze River in southwest China, more than a 1,000-mile drive from the capital.

As to what Tiananmen means to people in China today, the reality is that it’s an event remembered privately and often obliquely. Holdstock says:

For those who were personally involved, or whose friends and family members were arrested, injured or killed, the anniversary is a date they solemnly mark, either in private or through coded references on social media (any direct references to “Tiananmen Square” or “June 4” are deleted).

Though Holdstock believes it is an overstatement to say Tiananmen has been “forgotten” in China, its almost total absence from Chinese media, internet, and public discussion ‘means that for most the demonstrations are probably seldom thought of.’

As to whether Tiananmen will still matter in 20 years’ time, things are less sure. A seminar about the legacy of Tiananmen held in Beijing on May 3 stated:

as a result of June 4, abuse of power, bullying of the masses, indulgence of corruption, indifference to justice, and other inherent drawbacks of the Chinese social system became more severe and hopelessly entrenched. To rebuild social morality in China, we dig deeply to weed out those roots.

But as Holdstock concludes:

another possibility is that both knowledge and memory of the event will fade as the government wishes, until the date has no particular resonance.

Publishing in spring 2015, China’s Forgotten People will explore China’s relationship with Muslim Uihghurs and the escalating violence in the Xinjiang province.

Visit VICE UK to read Nick’s article in full. ■

Image courtesy of d’n’c.

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