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  • Dec 21, 2014
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Tiananmen Square crackdown
CommentInsight & Opinion

China's youth, its leaders of tomorrow, cannot remain ignorant of Tiananmen

Daniel Hong says reluctance of mainland Chinese to discuss the events of 1989 stems from both fear and shame, and open discussion would help foster trust in the government

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 June, 2014, 12:18pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2014, 5:23am

In the aftermath of the demonstrations and subsequent massacre on June 4, 1989, which resulted in hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of deaths as well as many thousands of arrests, Jeff Widener of the Associated Press took the famous "Tank Man" photograph from the balcony of a hotel room.

Today, this Pulitzer Prize finalist is widely regarded as one of post-Mao Zedong China's most iconic images - but not in mainland China.

Approaching the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the event is still unrecognised on the mainland. The government and its censored educational and media organisations don't talk about it because they are afraid of political unrest.

The generation that witnessed the demonstrations doesn't talk about it because they are afraid of repercussions. The result of this is that my generation, the millennials, is uninformed about an important part of our country's history.

I, a first-generation immigrant born in Beijing, did not know about the massacre until I read William Bell's Forbidden City in Grade 7 English class. After school that day, I asked my mother about the event. She stuttered, dismissed it as "political turbulence", and changed the subject.

I refused to let it go. Eventually, she gave in, retrieved a printout of Widener's Tank Man, and recounted what happened in 1989.

I was surprised when I found out that my parents - students at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China in Chengdu - had taken part in the demonstrations. I heard a story of my father, a reserved and reticent man, with his face painted, waving the Chinese flag on top of a car.

Following the government crackdown on protesters, my parents hid in the countryside for a period. It was a heavy but interesting dinner-table conversation. However, one question lingered: why were my parents reluctant to talk about such an important part of China's history and of their lives?

Most participants in the demonstrations, in fact, remain silent. This is not so surprising within mainland China, where public discussion of the event can be detrimental to one's career and even to the careers of relatives.

Outside China, however, many demonstrators who have emigrated still don't talk about it. Those like my parents feel ashamed; after many years of thought, they wonder whether their actions were misguided by youthful passion. After all, they protested because they love their country. A fundamental principle that Chinese people are raised on is ai guo, literally, love for one's country. My parents feared that if I knew about the government's actions in Tiananmen, this principle would not be instilled in me.

The result of this widespread lack of discussion, however, is the eradication of an important period in Chinese history for the people to whom it matters the most: the future generation of China. I remember the confused response from a friend in Beijing when I showed him Widener's Tank Man: "Is this from North Korea or from Soviet Russia?"

History is important because reflecting on the past bridges generations and allows us to understand what causes society's successes and failures.

Educating China's youth about the country's full history, not just about the heroics of Chairman Mao and the People's Liberation Army that currently populate high school textbooks, is therefore vital to producing a knowledgeable, relevant generation that is connected to its nation's roots and thus capable of leading our country's future growth.

The Communist Party does not want to confront its mistakes because it is afraid of political unrest. It shouldn't be. Rather, it should be confident that its decisions and commitment that took China from poverty to one of the most powerful nations in the world will speak to the population.

My parents, in fact, defended the government's decision in 1989: "If the military was not brought in and the Communist Party was toppled, who knows where we would be?"

Indeed, according to the International Monetary Fund, China's gross domestic product has increased more than 20-fold since 1990 and household wealth and quality of life have also significantly improved.

While the party will inevitably be condemned if it openly discusses its past, the alternative is worse: an uninformed, ignorant population incapable of leading our country.

Open discussion would produce a generation that trusts the government and has the knowledge to lead our country to a stable, prosperous future. It is a good trade-off.

Daniel Hong is a student at Columbia University with an interest in the Chinese political system

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This article is now closed to comments

321manu
"it should be confident that its decisions and commitment that took China from poverty to one of the most powerful nations in the world will speak to the population."
---you'd think. But time and again, the CCP's actions betray a complete lack of confidence. Those who refuse to be judged are at least uncertain of the judgement, if not downright fearful of it. The CCP might say they're doing good work, and in some areas, they have. But they certainly lack the conviction to put that sentiment to the test. Instead, they go the other way, and rewrite history while using threats of retribution and instilling fear instead.
"the alternative is worse: an uninformed, ignorant population incapable of leading our country."
---I think that's their preferred scenario. If the population is incapable of leading the country, there will be no opposition to the CCP continuing to do so. The CCP's job number one is self-preservation, and this "alternative" is precisely the outcome that they're after.
P Blair
All the world's youth should know about Tiananmen, Rape of Nanking, Japanese Sex Slaves, US and British War Criminals war on Iraq, Japanese Barbarism etc. And they will see Tiananmen was just a very small incident which produced a result that allowed China to concentrate on economic reforms that will be followed by political reforms which cannot be made unless the economic and legal institutions are mature and robust enough, otherwise you will have the Thai problem with democracy or the US problem with democracy where losing the popular vote still allowed George Bush to steal the presidential election. Even worse to go the Japanese path where Japanese politicians and organised crime are one and the same. Democracy is good only if you have robust legal institutions.
53567e31-b104-458b-a6cd-350e0a320969
According to Gregory Clark, a former Australian diplomat, the Tiananmen Massacre was a myth and the lies continues to this day.
www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2014/06/03/commentary/world-commentary/really-happened-tiananmen/#.U45GOJVZpjo
538d4b83-aaf0-4aa8-b31c-52c00a3209cb
Dan Hong, the author, here. johnsonwkchoi, I can write about whatever I like. I am my own master.
I Gandhi
Interesting to note that the widely distributed photo of Tankman — the lone student standing before a row of army tanks and heavily publicised as showing brave defiance against a cruel regime — was in fact taken the day after Tiananmen events, and the tanks were moving away from, and not into, Tiananmen Square.
johnsonwkchoi
The writer is very typical story line back by the US CIA. I bet he will not write about the history of Daioyu Islands or Nanking Massacre because his master said NO.
captam
@"The Communist Party does not want to confront its mistakes because it is afraid of political unrest."
So ?
Which of the two dominant US or British political parties openly confront their big mistakes?
reggiedog
johnsonwkchoi is right, it is much healthier for a society to pick and choose which parts of its history to remember, and which parts to pretend never happened, this approach has worked so well in the past.
CatherineOhlLaw
The Chinese people have been treated as kindergarden kids since they invented their govenments ( the famous 5000 years history ). Any changes will depend on and have to be initiated by themselves, their "teachers" certainly don't see why things should change. Ah , but now a majority of these kindergarden kids are well fed and well dressed, so things are really ok in most instances, and with a bit of luck one can even join the myriads in the teachers' ranks. And that really is the order of things, imperial exam for advancement and petitions for redress what with Louis Vuitons and shark fins soup for ever.....

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