Mourning becomes Tiananmen

Chinese leaders struggle to erase the June 4 massacre's persistent memories

Published June 3, 1996 9:07AM (EDT)

Each year, on the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, some lone individual appears in the square to make a genuflection or unfurl a small memorial banner -- only to be immediately spirited away by Public Security Bureau police, as if he were the carrier of some virulent strain of infectious disease.

As the June 4th anniversary approaches, the government of the People's Republic of China again steps up surveillance on dissidents, increases its vigilance over the press, and tightens security on university campuses and at Tiananmen Square. Communist party leaders, seven years after the event, still fear that someone will elude their control and bear public witness to the bloodshed that took place as People's Liberation Army soldiers shot their way into Beijing in 1989. But like a recurring dream -- or nightmare -- what happened that spring has a way, despite their best efforts, of ballooning back into public consciousness.

Deprived of the right to mourn in public, Ding Zilin, a professor of philosophy at People's University in Beijing who lost a son that night, has taken to marking the loss in another way: She has been compiling a public list of the names of all those who died -- something that the government has steadfastly refused to release. In an open letter to the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, Professor Ding explained her urge this way: "As a mother of a victim, there is no way for me to forget these boys and girls... I want the people of the world to know that they once lived in this world, that this world belonged to them, and why and how they disappeared from it."

Outsiders may be tempted to imagine that the events of 1989 are now all but forgotten in China except by a few such die-hards. After all, seven years have elapsed since the tragedy, and ever more Chinese citizens are plunging into commerce and business with an abandon that seems to have eclipsed all else. But an event of such tectonic and sorrowful proportions that occurred in a place of such profound symbolic significance as Tiananmen Square cannot be so easily forgotten. It remains all the more indelible because China's leaders have not only refused to apologize, but have refused to allow others to give the massacre a proper burial. Without such a ritual interment, its memory will continue to float over Tiananmen Square, and the rest of China, like a disembodied spirit denied a final resting place.

Lu Xun, China's greatest modern writer, who died in 1936, called this uniquely Chinese form of inner sentiment paralyzed from outer expressions as "frozen fire." Within China, the Party and the Public Security Bureau have relentlessly suppressed almost all unregulated political events, censoring all "incorrect" references about the Tiananmen Square debacle from the press and silencing all independent political voices. They still, however, have found no way to deal with the unruly outside world which, because it has not shared their commitment to censoring history, keeps intruding into China's historical airspace with reminders of what actually happened.

On Tuesday, PBS's Frontline broadcasts "The Gate of Heavenly Peace," a two and a half hour documentary on the 1989 protest movement and its bloody suppression. When a version of the U.S.-made film was scheduled last fall at the New York Film Festival, the Chinese government demanded the screening be canceled. When the demand was rejected by festival organizers, Beijing leaders canceled a long scheduled appearance by the celebrated Chinese director Zhang Yimou, who was due to host a festival premier of his film "Shanghai Triad."

When the documentary was later featured at the Washington D.C. Film Festival in April, the Chinese Embassy sent a letter to that Festival's director alleging that it "sings praises ... in total disregard of the facts ... of a very small number of people [who] engaged themselves in anti-government violence in Beijing in 1989 but failed ... If this film is shown during the festival, it will mislead the audience and hurt the feelings of 1.2 billion Chinese people."

What Embassy officials seemed to be afraid of was not so much that the film would remind the world of the brutality that they had visited on their own people, but that it would remind the Chinese people themselves that the dead were still indecently buried while the living had never been given a chance to openly mourn them.

The events of 1989 were an unprecedented moment of struggle to make China politically less repressive. Since then, Party leaders have revved up the marketplace to such a distracting extent that it sometimes appears as if all China has been swept away on a wave of historical amnesia about the events. However, in this age of the information highway, controlling how people remember history, and judge those who make it, is no more possible -- even for a dictatorship -- than controlling someone's inner dreams.

It may be that for now, Chinese of good conscience can do little more than wait passively as another June 4th anniversary ticks past. But as the saturnine Lu Xun reminded his fellow countrymen during an earlier and equally repressive period of Chinese history more than half a century ago, "As long as there is flint, the seeds of fire will not die."

Quotes of the day

Who needs Marilyn Monroe?

"If you look right now at all the magazines, the trend is for thin girls. That's what's selling. There was a time when the girls were voluptuous. But today a girl who is busty and voluptuous won't sell. The advertisers are the ones who decide. They hire our talent."

-- Corinne Nicolas of Elite Model Management, which represents model Trish Goff, whose "skeletal" looks featured in British Vogue prompted the Omega Watch Corporation to threaten to pull its ads from the magazine.

Who needs the Energizer bunny?

"I saw President Clinton. Very interesting. He said, 'You know, this job is a hell of a lot of fun!' Yeah, and I believe him. I know this guy. He's the most tenacious guy I've ever met in this business. You can knock him down a hundred times and he gets up with a smile on his face and just keeps coming at you."

-- Former Democratic presidential candidate, Michael Dukakis, on a recent visit to the White House. The one-time governor of Massachusetts now teaches politics and government at Northeastern University.

By Orville Schell

Orville Schell, author of numerous books and articles on China, is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

MORE FROM Orville Schell

Related Topics ------------------------------------------