Tiananmen Square Massacre: 25 Years On

Justin Hill
Jun 4th, 2014

1989 was a year of change: the Soviet army pulled out of Kabul; Solidarity was allowed to contest elections in Soviet Poland; Yugoslavia won the Eurovision Song Contest; and I turned eighteen.

That was a year for me when old certainties of home and family fell away.  Apparently I was not going to die before I got old, and as Motorola introduced the MicroTAC Personal Cellular Telephone, it seemed that it was at least theoretically possible to have a phone conversation without standing under the stairs, as my mother listened through the open kitchen door.  

In Europe the hot summer was filled with images of joyous Poles, Hungarians, Czechs; young people standing on the Berlin Wall, Skodas filled with excited Poles and East Germans and Czechs all fleeing westwards from repressive Soviet Grey. 

But in China the image was students and shooting, and of course Tank Man. 

I watched those images at home in the downstairs study, where I had the TV going, and where running news was covering the events which turned violent, then horrific, then stunned. 

I had no idea that three years later I would be standing on that very spot, in Tiananmen Square.


I arrived in Beijing at the end of 1992.  It was grey, ladies wiped the coal dust off washing lines before hanging their washing, and Tiananmen was a bleak, cold, empty place where it was hard to image summer, youth, hope. 

Soon I was living in rural Shanxi Province, in some ways on the front line of the war over Tiananmen, for the government had decided that students should never again rise up against the government, and in my college political education was revised, deepened and its imposition strict. 

It was hard to have a conversation that did not talk of the ‘Chinese economic model’, or ‘Socialist Market Economy’.  I lived across the landing from a professor who had been sent down to the countryside during the Hundred Flowers Campaign, of 1956, and who had married locally, and never returned.  He was a thirty five year old statement of power: this was what happened to people who crossed the government.  They were banished, or dead, or exiled to live with the peasants.

Shanxi was a poor, industrial province, perceived in 1989 as loyal to the Communist hardliners.   Many of the soldiers who took part in the Tiananmen suppression were locals.  They had been given commemorative watches, and some of my students, whose siblings had helped put down what was seen as the ‘attempted revolution’ were proud of their brothers.  It was a good thing.  Stability had been insured. 

Just look at Russia, they said.  See what happens when change is too sudden. 


In China, the Tiananmen Square Massacre is colloquially referred to as六四 - ‘June Fourth’.  It follows in a succession of ‘Fourth’s, important to Chinese history. 

In 1919 The May Fourth Incident was a protest against the Treaty of Versailles, which allowed Japan to take over former German colonies in China.  It has become symbolic of the desire for the young in China to throw off the weights and shackles of the past - a symbolism adopted by the Communist Party, and celebrated still. 

April Fourth occurred in 1976, when the death of Premier Zhou Enlai triggered an outpouring of popular grief for a man who had been seen as a moderator on the excesses of Mao and the Gang of Four.  Two years later, when Deng Xiaoping was released from house arrest, these demonstrations were seen as a patriotic display against corrupt advisors to the ruler.    

In 1989, June Fourth the initial protests were triggered by the death of reformer Hu Yaobang, who had been accused of bringing bourgeois liberalization to China.  A small demonstration after his death on 15th April 1989, demanded that his legacy be reassessed.    It combined two giants of popular Chinese power: student protests and grief over the death of a well loved leader. 

Momentum gathered rapidly. 

A week after the first protests a hundred thousand students marched on Tiananmen Square.


In Shanxi no one wanted to talk about June Fourth.  The demonstrators were rioters.  Soldiers had been burnt, lynched, massacred by students and workers.  There was a sense that ‘our boys’ had saved the nation, at a great danger to themselves.

Yes, people knew that something had happened in the capital, but the Emperor is far away and many of them focused on what had happened in their local areas where each city had had student led protests. 

And of course it was still dangerous to talk about.  Dangerous in the way of people being locked up.  Or losing their job, which meant their work unit, which meant everything to people then.

But there are always a few dissenting voices: chinks of light by which I glimpsed the past.  From them I had a sense that some of China’s best had the foresight to see beyond the messy compromises of Chinese Communist Theories and Politics, and to have a vision of a better China.  And these people were missing. 

Some were locked up.  Most had lost their jobs, and they had left.  They had taken their vision and talent south to where there were freedoms opening up.  Not freedom of expression, but the freedom to make money.


Louisa Lim, whose book, The People's Republic of Amnesia examines the legacy of Tiananmen, interviewed a hundred students in Beijing. 

The students I spoke to are the best-educated students in China, yet the vast majority of them looked at the photo with the slightest flicker of recognition. ‘Is it in Kosovo?’ one astronomy major asked. A student pursuing a PhD in marketing hazarded a guess, ‘Is it from South Korea?’

‘I feel that it looks a bit like Tiananmen Square. But it isn't, is it?’ asked one student doing postgraduate work in education at Beijing Normal University.

Out of 100 students, 15 correctly identified the picture; two of whom had never seen it before but had guessed correctly. In fact, the number of students who mistakenly believed it to be a photo of a military parade was higher, at 19, than those who recognized it.


It took five years and a move south to Hunan Province for me to find people who would talk about June Fourth.  Distance had something to do with the openness.  Hunan is a thousand miles from Beijing, and people there were disinterested in things that had happened to Beijingers in the manner of people in Surrey being a little uninterested by events in Athens or Ukraine.   Yes there had been protests in my town.  Yes it was an exciting summer.  No they didn’t really know what had happened in Beijing, no they were not particularly interested.  They wanted stability, and the government was giving them that.

But one day, I heard a story from a retired professor of a couple who had been involved in leading the student protests of 1989.  They were lecturers, and had lost their jobs of course, but they still lived within the university work unit.  They were still on campus.

‘Oh yes,’ I was told.  ‘They live just over there.  They both lost their jobs.  No one talks about it now.  They are divorced.’


I walked just over there, through the shaded blocks of four storey apartments, and looked about.  There were old ladies sitting in the sun, a few chickens in stairwell cages, the angry hiss of frying or chopping from open kitchen windows. 

I never knew who these two people were.  It didn’t seem important to me then, what struck me was the depth of history and knowledge these tight Chinese communities held within themselves.  Yes, everyone knew who had led the 1989 Protests on campus.  Just as everyone knew who had been involved in the 1987 protests, the various swings of the Cultural Revolution, the Hundred Flowers Campaigns, every political movement and counter movement that had shadowed the political infighting in Beijing. 

These were communities that suffered throughout the Maoist era, being broken and remoulded, broken again and again, and forced back into the required shape.  

Despite the many silences, the fissures ran deep. 


Of course the young people of China who were interviewed by Louisa Lim were not born in 1989.  They have grown up in a world where they cannot imagine their parents being crushed by tanks.  Where the centre of the nation was a battlefield.  Where the ring roads of Beijing were thronged with citizens trying to stop the tanks from entering their city.

China is a country that has had to be forgetful of its recent past.  But while China forgets, it is up to us to bear witness and remember. 

Tiananmen Square
June Fourth
May 35


Justin Hill
United Kingdom
Last blog date: Jun 4th, 2014


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