The 30th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and resulting massacre has been met with strict censorship and mainstream media silence in China, as people around the world have remembered those who lost their lives when student-led demonstrations ended in a brutal crackdown. Yet as the English language version of State media outlet Global Times talked of the events as a “vaccination”, there was still evidence of people within China commemorating the sensitive date.
Popular anime and video-sharing site Bilibili was among the platforms that enacted pre-emptive measures aimed at silencing dissent, with their signature “bullet comment” feature disabled for several days either side of June 4. One week out from the anniversary, Chinese game-streaming leader Huya blocked users from updating their screen names or changing other account information, while arts-focused social media hub Douban suspended a number of prominent fora.
Some speculated that such efforts had made their way to prominent non-Chinese platforms too, with Twitter forced to deny that their suspension of a number of Chinese language accounts tweeting about Tiananmen was due to mass reporting by the Chinese authorities:
However, some of these were involved in commentary about China. These accounts were not mass reported by the Chinese authorities — this was a routine action on our part.
— Twitter Public Policy (@Policy) June 1, 2019
Nevertheless, the platform was awash with personal insights, moving stories from relatives, and photos from the capital in 1989 — in both Chinese and other languages.
Somewhat different in tone were the tweets coming from Party propaganda organ Global Times, who seemed keen to engage in the trending hashtags around Tiananmen with a contrasting take:
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) June 4, 2019
#环球时报 Editorial: Leaving the Tiananmen Square incident behind has been aimed at helping the country get away from the shadow, avoid disputes, and help Chinese people face the future. https://t.co/FwToa2Q6UU pic.twitter.com/NVbpUExRbN
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) June 3, 2019
This editorial did not appear to make it to their Chinese language edition.
Similarly, Defence Minister Wei Fenghe’s assertion that the Party’s handling of the Tiananmen incident was the “correct” policy went unreported in Mainland Chinese language media.
But that’s not to say the Chinese internet was complete devoid of references to 30 years ago. Some came from foreign entities, such as the Canadian Embassy’s official Weibo account, but numerous others came from Chinese people themselves, posting coded messages and sometimes obscure references to Tiananmen, or simply putting up photos of the Square on their social feeds (posts that we won’t link to or feature here for obvious reasons).
And amid a lot of talk of “collective amnesia” over the events of 30 years ago, it’s also important to remember that not all commemorations come in forms that are immediately recognizable to non-Chinese viewers:
This. I know of Chinese people who probably have never seen the tank man image, but whose families were deeply affected by 1989 each in their own ways. It’s condescending to say that their memories were effaced just because they don’t recognize the photo. https://t.co/pgoPKUulYn
— Tianyu M. Fang (@tianyuf) June 3, 2019
Meanwhile, this “where are they now” thread about some of the protestors is particularly eye-opening:
Afterwards I remarked upon what happened to my host. He said, rather bemusedly, "you know, he was one of those democracy activists on the streets back in 1989. After the crackdown he was desperate to go abroad." 2/
— Y Y Zhu (@yuanyi_z) June 3, 2019
Contrary to popular belief, most people in China do know about what they call 6.4. They aren’t stupid enough to tell foreign journalists who shove prints of the Tank Man in their face, but they know. 10/
— Y Y Zhu (@yuanyi_z) June 4, 2019
At home, China remains uneasy. Overseas, others make efforts to remember. But across the board, we can see how the events of 30 years ago have gone on to impact lives, policies, and histories in our shared world.
Cover photo Tiananmen Square in May 2016 © Piotr Piatrouski | Dreamstime.com
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