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The unmentionable tank in the room: how China’s students remember the Tiananmen Massacre today

My experience of Tiananmen Squares mirrors the Chinese experience. When I arrived in China for the first time as the trailing spouse of an architect who worked in the hip art district Factory 798 in the years before the 2008 Olympics, Beijing was pushing the bounds of communist sensibilities.

Emerging artists left behind oppressive histories, and put Mao’s face overlaid on the Nike Swoosh admonishing people to “Just Do It.” The Starbucks in the middle of the Forbidden City, just outside Tiananmen Square, seemed to plant the capitalist flag in the heart of the communism.

Forbidden City Starbucks

The since-removed Forbidden City Starbucks in 2005. File Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Forgetting the values of history presented a seductive option because there were opportunities at hand. Returning a few years later as a business school professor at the Shenzhen campus of Peking University, I focused on my research and publishing which – at the time – dealt only minimally with China.

This meant avoiding any discussion of the four T’s: Taiwan, Tiananmen, Tibet, and The Party. For many early years in China, I focused on succeeding rather than looking at the human cost in values around me in China.

One year, forgetting the date, it struck me as odd that a disproportionate number of students in black shirts appeared on campus on a hot June day in Shenzhen. Only later, when a student mentioned it in passing, did the students’ silent acknowledgement of the day’s weight become real.

The Chinese Communist Party wants to eradicate any memory of June 4 but memories and hopes do not disappear so easily.

So much of life in China happens in the quiet unspoken moments. A knowing nod or a non-committal answer steers the listener in the preferred direction but does not commit the speaker. Few speak even quietly to close friends about the massacre and even fewer say its name in public.

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June 4 dominates elite Chinese institutions in the late spring, though it is never mentioned. Flurries of meetings urging stability and following the Party line never mention Tiananmen Square or democracy, but no participant misses the tank in the room.

Universities solemnly urge professors to monitor students, though giving no specific reason or potential mental defect. Across wider populations of China, the knowledge of Tiananmen may fade, but educated and globally cosmopolitan groups – whether democrat or Party member – all know the weight of June 4.

Outside the halls of academia and corridors of power, life in China on June 4 continues like any other day. Offices and factories fill up in the morning like any other day and children attend school with little red scarves showing allegiance to the Party.

The relentless focus on wealth and material improvement, at the expense of any sense of justice, leaves many in China feeling empty and unsatisfied. Surely the good life must bring more than one-day delivery? Yet the annual day of collective amnesia in China feels less like mournful remembrance and more like resigned acceptance of imposed success.

tiananmen massacre vigil

Photo: Etan Liam, via Flickr.

The June 4 legacy manifests itself on a daily basis – less through overt acts of government oppression, and more by neglect of the individual humanity and justice owed to each person in China.  Surveillance footage regularly captures gruesome scenes of people passing by as a wounded victim lies in the street, rather than offering help.

The Chinese Communist Party requires not just annual bouts of amnesia, but removal of the memory of questions asked in search of something beyond oneself. Do not ask about the good life, for the Party will tell you.

Guilty at my own less forgivable memory lapse, I wore black shirts every subsequent year. No one organised the annual wearing of black. No gatherings on campus.  We settled for knowing glances.

Even stopping to openly acknowledge a quiet act of resistance carried risks, so we just thanked each other for keeping the memory of freedom alive. At one point a student wearing a black shirt passed me in the hall and then stopped as if wanting to share the burden but thought better of it, nodded with a quiet smile, and kept walking. If students in the age of Xi could engage in such quiet resistance, surely I could join them.

In One Hundred Years of Solitude, as the people of a village slowly lose their memory, we learn that memory recounts not simply a historical record but teaches society how to interact. Lacking the ability to remember and question, society collapses onto canonical memorisation to manage the simplest of tasks.

As Gabriel Garcia Marquez writes: “the system demanded so much vigilance and moral strength that many succumbed to the spell of an imaginary reality, one invented by themselves, which was less practical for them but more comforting.”

Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square mao zedong

The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square. File Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Marxist labour organizers, democracy advocates, and human rights campaigners in China know all too well the ease of the imaginary reality. Rather than persevering in the good fight to remember what makes this place and day special, many succumb to the comforting imaginary reality.

Fighting the battle of remembrance however, is less about capturing the historical facts of a specific place and time, more about remembrance of Chinese hopes.


Kong Tsung-gan‘s new collection of essays – narrative, journalistic, documentary, analytical, polemical, and philosophical – trace the fast-paced, often bewildering developments in Hong Kong since the 2014 Umbrella Movement. As Long As There Is Resistance, There Is Hope is available exclusively through HKFP with a min. HK$200 donation. Thanks to the kindness of the author, 100 per cent of your payment will go to HKFP’s critical 2019 #PressForFreedom Funding Drive.

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The unmentionable tank in the room: how China's students remember the Tiananmen Massacre today