By this time in 1989, buildup of the mass protest movement in Beijing that led to the violent June 4 crackdown by Chinese troops in Tianamen Square was already well underway. In China, the massacre has come to be referred to simply as “June 4 incident”, and on Chinese social media, it’s nearly impossible to refer to at all.
Twenty-five years after Tiananmen, the topic remains taboo not only for those living in China, but for Chinese abroad. Matthew Bell with PRI’s The World in a recent report described the way Chinese students at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, US shied from the subject when the school recently invited them to join a 2-day conference called “Tiananmen at 25”.
One highlight of the conference, he said, was a screening of “Gates of Heavenly Peace“, a 1995 documentary film detailing the events leading up to the protests in Beijing and Shanghai, the content of which has been effectively banned in China. Only a handful of students from China showed up to the event, Bell said, and those who did would only speak to him under conditions of anonymity.
“It’s quite shocking, because a lot of things [related to the June 4th incident], I don’t think I have ever heard of,” one student, unnamed, told him.
One student at the Tiananmen conference apologized to me, saying he could not speak openly about such a sensitive subject — he was scared of being reported and ending up on a government blacklist. He told me that he wants to do business when he goes back home to China, and he just cannot risk speaking to a foreign reporter about June 4th.
During one discussion, a faculty member in the audience raised her camera to snap a picture just as one of the few Chinese students began to pose a question to an expert on stage. The student threw up his hands in front of his face and said, “No pictures!” When I approached him during a break, he declined to speak with me.
According to the same report, there’s another course at Harvard University that studies events surrounding the 1989 crackdown and the instructor Rowena He says that Chinese students have gone as far as trying to join the class without actually registering under their real names.
He, who says more and more students have joined the course over recent years, still encourages students to look into the subject on their own: “I think that it’s important to explore historical truth and it’s important to have free inquiry. Now that they’re in this free country, they have access to information, right? They can go to the library. They don’t need to believe me. They don’t need to believe you. They don’t need to believe anybody. Just go and find out.”
Currently, there isn’t any official June 4 memorial in the world, and Hong Kong’s recent attempts to open a museum dedicated to the 1989 victims have been obstructed by what appears to be pro-Beijing forces in a continuing effort to suppress any commemoration of the incident’s 25th anniversary.