Twenty-Five Years Later, It Is Always June 4, 1989

On June 1, this past Sunday, police came to the Beijing home of the artist Guo Jian—an Australian citizen, living in Beijing with an Australian passport—and took him away. Two days before, the Financial Times had published an interview with Guo. In it, he talked about how he'd privately made an installation of a diorama of Tian'anmen Square, buried in a layer of ground pork, till the meat had rotted. Guo went on to tell the reporter about his own experience at Tianan'men in 1989: a hunger strike, tear gas, bullets, blood, "the emergency room packed with bodies."

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Guo told a friend over the phone that he expects to be released after 15 days.

Dozens of other people—"activists" is the catch-all term—are likewise in detention or under house arrest right now. Pu Zhiqiang, a Tian'anmen protester and a leading rights lawyer, is in detention. Qu Zhenhong, the lawyer for the lawyer, is in detention.

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It is important to be sophisticated about China. You learn this right away. It is a repressive authoritarian state, yes, but. The Chinese Communist Party terrorizes and silences its critics, yes, but. These are the things Americans know without ever going to China. There is so much nuance to consider, so much context, so many contingencies and complications. One must not be an American jingoist, a rube.

It is a problem. Evan Osnos, who not long ago left his Beijing posting for the New Yorker and returned to the United States, wrote about this last month for the New York Times:

The most difficult part of writing about contemporary China is capturing its proportions: How much of the story is truly inspiring, and how much of it is truly grim? How much of its values are reflected in technology start-ups and stories of self-creation, and how much of its values are reflected in the Great Firewall and abuses of power?

Osnos was explaining his decision to reject the chance to publish a mainland Chinese edition of his own new book, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China. The censors had demanded cuts, to steer the book away from "sensitive" material. "Sensitive" is a nicely chosen concept—not "forbidden," you see; China is not trying to order reporters around. One must consider the feelings, the vulnerabilities, of this vast and difficult political enterprise.

What happened in 1989, though, is so stabbingly sensitive that it cannot be brought in up the normal course of events without committing a prima facie act of insensitivity. It is disproportionate, dangerous. The reporter Louisa Lim, who has just published The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, described her work on the book to the Times:

I told very few people that I was writing a book. I never told my own assistant or any of my colleagues.

For a while, I didn't even tell my own children, then aged 5 and 7, for fear that they might blurt something out. I was very careful not to speak about the book at home or in the office—both of which were in the same diplomatic compound, which is widely believed to be bugged—in order to try to avoid jeopardizing my sources or the project itself.

It is so impossible to discuss, it becomes impossible not to discuss.

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Why do we care about the June 4 Incident? Nothing that happened 25 years ago in the heart of Beijing came close, in violence and horror, to the slaughter now ongoing in Syria, to pick a convenient contemporary situation. Hadn't Mexico slaughtered protesters weeks before the 1968 Olympics? For that matter, hadn't our own National Guard shot our own student protesters? After Tian'anmen, from his retirement, Richard Nixon gave reassurances to the Chinese on precisely that point: that sometimes a nation must do what it needs to do, to get an uncertain situation under control. (This anecdote, ever since I encountered it, has seemed to me to be the only fact history needs about Richard Nixon.)

We cared at the time because it seemed grossly anachronistic. The Eastern Bloc was suddenly, inexorably opening its borders, the Communist dictatorships were wobbling. Half a century of threatened cataclysm, of intractable political and ideological hostility, was resolving itself peacefully. Even in China, it seemed—and then, not in China at all. In China it was 1968.

And then, having rejected the prevailing historic imperatives, China set about denying history altogether. The incident was not what it had seemed. It was a riot, a counterrevolutionary disturbance. It was nothing at all. It would not be spoken of. It would not exist.

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The Fat Years, a dystopian novel by Chan Koonchung published in 2009 and translated into English in 2011, is set in a future China that has attained preeminent power in the world. The populace is happy and prosperous, but there is a span of 28 days, the weeks immediately prior to China's ascension, that no one can remember.

The protagonist is driven to find out what happened. Gradually, he discovers that the people are under the constant influence of an uplifting and pacifying drug, delivered through the drinking water. The natural assumption is that the drugging is responsible for the collective amnesia—that whatever shock or turmoil had gone into producing China's triumph had been deliberately wiped from the public's collective mind.

That sinister conclusion, however, turns out to be untrue. A senior official confesses to the low-grade dose of mood drugs, but denies the rest:

"Where would the Office of Stability Maintenance find such an amazing amnesiac drug? It would be wonderful if we did have one. Then our Communist Party could re-write its history any way it wanted to."

No one, he says, imposed the collective memory loss. "If the Chinese people themselves had not already wanted to forget, we could not have forced them to do so." It simply happened on its own.

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A diorama is a didactic and somewhat comic medium, an attempt to bring a world under control. In his current show at the Brooklyn Museum, the artist Ai Weiwei has included S.A.C.R.E.D., a set of lifelike dioramas depicting his 81-day detention by the Chinese authorities. They are in six large, dark metal boxes, each one containing a replica of the same cell and bathroom, with Ai and his captors in various scenes: the artist being interrogated, eating a meal, being watched as he uses the toilet. The bathroom fixtures are covered in foam and strapping tape, presumably to prevent self-harm. You peek into each box through a window on the side or by climbing up on a step to peer through a peephole in the roof. Parents at the museum were helping their children climb up and look down into them.

Ai has also included a piece called China Log—a long piece of wood like a tree trunk, assembled neatly but not seamlessly of salvaged beams from old temples, with a cutout running through the heart of it in the shape of China. It lies on the gallery floor. China Log is a well-documented piece of Ai's work; there are plenty of pictures of it. But Ai's art delivers surprises. You can read about it and look at photographs, but only when you encounter it on the gallery floor do you realize: The only way to peer through it, to see the light shining through China, is to get down on your knees.

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In certain respects, the campaign of silence and suppression has succeeded. Louisa Lim reports the astonishing news that when she showed 100 college students the definitive, iconic Tian'anmen photograph, the lone civilian facing down that oncoming line of tanks, only 15 of them could name its context. Shortly before the Beijing Olympics in 2008, an edition of the Beijing News had to be recalled after it accidentally published a photo of the wounded being rushed from the massacre scene, as part of a roundup of a longtime photographer's work—the result, it seemed, of some staffer failing to even recognize what the picture showed.

The erasure of the incident has produced a certain impossibility. This thing that did not happen—it consumes the Chinese authorities. The censors are alert for it, endlessly chasing and blocking the numbers 6 and 4 and 89 in various combinations, or suddenly popular cryptic puns, or nonsense strings of Chinese characters that can be seen as a pictograph of tanks running over a person. An attempt to browse basic facts about the square itself, even for tourist purposes, can send a browser into a tailspin. The prudent journalist, working in China, types its name rarely and cautiously.

So no one is allowed to commemorate it, yet it is effectively commemorated anyway: The immense square stands empty—for nothing. The police stand on ostentatiously high alert—for no reason. The attacks on Google and other online services escalate. The absence of demonstrations becomes, unavoidably, a demonstration. Twenty-five years after hope was routed, the fear is immortalized.

Among all the euphemisms and circumlocutions that have briefly, indirectly, enabled people in China to mention the non-mentionable (new this year: a hand of playing cards fanned out into 8-9-6-4 and A-K-4-7), there's something particularly haunting about "May 35." The implication is that something has come undone about the understanding of time itself, that the calendar is broken and spilling out of control. A further implication is that May never ended, that the square is still filled with the living, that the Goddess of Democracy still stands. It is the theoretical opposite of the ongoing erasures: What if, indeed, the events of June 4, 1989, had never happened?

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On June 4, 1989, the People's Liberation Army moved into the center of Beijing, using tanks and live ammunition to break up the protests that had occupied Tian'anmen Square. The protesters fought back. Hundreds of them were killed, or thousands.

Twenty-Five Years Later, It Is Always June 4, 1989

[Images via AP. Scocca is the author of Beijing Welcomes You]