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Silencing the Masses: The Chinese Government’s Selective National Narratives

The common perception of the Chinese government has a theme: Communists, tyrants, anti-Westerners, persecutors, cold-hearted butchers. The government’s extensive control over its people cannot be doubted. From the “Great Firewall of China”— the censorship of the internet — to the imprisonment of dissenters, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has gripped its people since its rise to power in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution. However, the CCP’s approach to unopposed power does not just involve thoughtless violence: the government has developed an incredibly effective method of rewriting history. By controlling China’s national narrative, manipulating and omitting truths as they please, the CCP has built a foundation of ignorance to ensure their regime’s success for years to come.

Few students in China know of the Tiananmen Square massacre, even as its thirtieth-anniversary approaches. When J. Christopher Beam sat down at a café in Beijing to talk to two Chinese young men about June 4, 1989, one hit the table and left—an example of a typical reaction. Others confused by the reaction would simply ask what happened, as they had no idea. Chinese millennials either know nothing about the turning point of modern Chinese history, or they know bits and pieces, picked up from college professors and hushed, indoor discussions. Most will not admit to knowing anything for fear of imprisonment or even death. Beam met a woman identified only as Susan, who was two years old when tanks crossed through her neighborhood, but she did not learn about the event until “an American classmate raised the subject” in a college class. She explained that “When I heard about [the crackdown] I was so shocked… I [didn’t] know how the government could do that to its own people.”

The massacre came after seven weeks of protest in Tiananmen Square, located in the center of China’s capital. Beijing University students had protested for many reasons: democratization, corruption, high inflation rates, free market systems, among others. By May 13, 300,000 people gathered in the Square and marched, day after day, to advocate for their human rights while thousands began hunger strikes. A week later, the government declared martial law, and the People’s Liberation Army entered the Square only to withdraw after student protesters tried to convince the soldiers to join their cause. On June 4, the situation boiled over when party leaders ordered the army to storm the Square. Tanks rolled through, crushing those who refused to move and firing aimlessly into the crowds. Soldiers jumped off, beating and stabbing college students. While the Chinese government’s official statement reported that 200 civilians died, newly released British reports claim that this number amounted to nearly 10,000 individuals, yet another example of the CCP’s rampant concealment of the truth. Additionally, the party has maintained that the massacre “was a valid response to a ‘counter-revolutionary incident’ in which some protestors were responsible for casualties.” The fact that the slaughter had been carried out by the People’s Liberation Army, one of the few institutions that most Chinese citizens trusted, only deepened the country’s wounds. Even if this part of Chinese history is sealed, the resulting resentment and sense of betrayal of those who do remember both remain unresolved.

The CCP’s success in hiding the atrocity to its own people is both remarkable and horrifying. As part of the infamous Chinese firewall, the government banned Google from all Chinese servers in fear that the Western system of free information flow would undermine the government’s power. The government censored this massacre even more; its discussion has been unofficially banned in textbooks and Weibo––a popular microblogging site––searches. If one were to search “1989” on China’s main search engine, Baidu, the only results would be official, state-released reports or nothing at all. Similarly, on the mainland, those who try to commemorate the massacre are arrested, although protests remain strong in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The Human Rights Watch explains how the government continues to squash the victims and families demanding justice and arrests anyone too outspoken for their liking. For example, Guo Jian, a well-known artist, was arrested for creating a model of Tiananmen Square covered in ground meat. The imprisonment and death of Liu Xiaobo, a writer who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his support of students in the Tiananmen massacre and campaigns against one-party rule and various other policies, enraged many Western critics.

Ultimately, as Bonnie Gerard argues in The Diplomat, the legacy of the massacre lies in the normalization and institutionalization of “extreme censorship and political repression.” However, these tools, now essential to the CCP’s power, have led to the buildup of palpable tensions and inhibited the success of China’s modernization. According to Gerard, “China in 1989 was on the cusp of something more than just an economic explosion” but it all ended on June 4, 1989, when the government doubled down on its control of ideas. Small private businesses had been opening across the country as people began to believe that China was realizing its full potential that had been so dearly paid for during the Cultural Revolution. The government and its people never reconciled afterwards, with the CCP suppressing discussion and silencing voices that had the potential to finally address issues, and could allow the country to move past its stagnant political culture. Time explains how “Entrepreneurs cannot be expected to launch the next Google in an environment where the Internet is controlled, creative thinking is discouraged and the courts can’t protect them.” By barring intellectual freedom through censorship and oppression, the legacy of Tiananmen is holding back the country; China cannot advance and compete with the top economic powers of today without having the freedom to innovate and explore. It is time that President Xi Jinping and his government realize that.