“One free man will say with truth what he thinks and feels amongst thousands of men who by their acts and words attest exactly the opposite. It would seem that he who sincerely expressed his thought must remain alone, whereas it generally happens that every one else, or the majority at least, have been thinking and feeling the same things but without expressing them. And that which yesterday was the novel opinion of one man, to-day becomes the general opinion of the majority. And as soon as this opinion is established, immediately by imperceptible degrees, but beyond power of frustration, the conduct of mankind begins to alter.” —Leo Tolstoy
30th Anniversary of Tiananmen Square
Thirty years ago this week, on June 4, 1989, the Chinese government launched a brutal military crackdown on student-led demonstrations assembled in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. For seven weeks prior, protestors swelled into the hundreds of thousands (over a million at the height of the protests, according to some reports) and called for freedom of speech, freedom of the press, government accountability, and an end to cronyism and corruption. Although the fledgling Chinese Democracy Movement was composed of many factions with many different agendas, broadly speaking, it aimed for liberal reforms.
It takes only a single act of courage from one freethinking individual to create a ripple that will become a tidal wave.
Dissension permeated the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and even some of the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party sympathized with protestors, but in the end, hardliners won out. Orders were given to use military force to clear the square. To this day, government censorship, obfuscation, and denial have made details of the resulting massacre’s death toll difficult to verify, with some estimates as low as 200 to others over 10,000 (according to a British government cable that was declassified in 2017).
One of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century, “Tank Man,” was taken during the military crackdown and has since become an enduring symbol of the individual versus state oppression.
Censorship and Brainwashing
Sadly, it seems this famous image and the events of June 4, 1989, have largely faded from the collective consciousness of the Chinese people due to an Orwellian campaign of official repression and self-imposed censorship.
Many foreign observers have noticed themes of mass ignorance and apathy: “Chinese students are so apolitical, so focused on jobs and wealth, that they’re not even aware of their own powerful history.” Another story reports a similar message:
After years of enforced silence, many young people have little idea if any of [the rumored details of the massacre] took place. Others have come to believe that the crackdown was inevitable or even necessary for the sake of stability.
A Chinese journalist in Beijing laments that "even those who are well-aware of the state’s meddling make little effort to seek truth and push for change."
A Legacy of Democracy
Nevertheless, it is impossible to completely rewrite history and enforce ideological silence in a country with more than one billion people. Many people who lived through the events of 1989 are still alive in China today, and dissidents in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and elsewhere overseas have not forgotten.
Wang Dan, one of the main student leaders during the 1989 student protests, stands by his decision and firmly believes he would do it all over again if confronted with the same choices today:
Despite our failure, I believe that we protesters made a difference. CNN reported live on what happened in Tiananmen Square, and the Chinese government realized that it could no longer butcher its citizens with the whole world watching. We raised the public’s awareness of democracy; many of the lawyers and human rights activists who have challenged the legitimacy of the Communist Party in the years since the massacre were participants in or supporters of the 1989 movement. And today, the West has finally recognized the dangers of China’s totalitarian regime.
Many intellectuals, international businessmen, and their Chinese counterparts working and living in the mainland rightly recognize that China has become less free than it was five or even 10 years ago since Xi Jinping consolidated power. Throughout the mainland and even in formerly free places such as Hong Kong, free speech, dissent, and civil society have been relentlessly suppressed by the newly emboldened regime. Perhaps it is not surprising that the Chinese government launched its strongest censorship campaign to date on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
As sad as it is to acknowledge China’s relapse into authoritarianism, this should only embolden freedom lovers everywhere to seek and spread the truth: On June 4, 1989, young people from all backgrounds and all walks of life were willing to put their lives on the line (and many of them did pay the ultimate price) for the hopes of a freer world. Justice remains elusive while their murderers are still at-large and active in a gang called the Chinese Communist Party that rules the country to this day.
Erasing the sacrifices of those brave men and women who shed their blood in Tiananmen Square and allowing those responsible to get away with their crime is nothing less than morally reprehensible.
Jiang Lin, a PLA journalist with connections to the inner party leadership, witnessed the massacre and lived with suppressed memories for 30 years. In an interview with The New York Times, she finally broke her silence when her guilty conscience was too much to bear:
The pain has eaten at me for 30 years. Everyone who took part must speak up about what they know happened. That’s our duty to the dead, the survivors and the children of the future.
In her conclusion, “China’s seemingly stability and prosperity would be fragile as long as the party did not atone for the bloodshed.” This façade cannot last. “All this is built on sand. There’s no solid foundation. If you can deny that people were killed, any lie is possible,” she warns.
Jiang Lin is absolutely right. Let us not forget the events of Tiananmen 1989 and join the efforts of people across the world in commemoration. As Tolstoy noted, it takes only a single act of courage from one freethinking individual to create a ripple that will become a tidal wave. Even as we lament decreasing economic and personal freedoms in the United States, we should keep in mind that many people across the world have it much worse. The message of liberty is universal, and we should always stand together against government attempts at oppression no matter where they happen to be.