25 Years Later, Tiananmen Square Is A Forbidden Subject In China

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Immediately following the crackdown, the government began a long-term campaign of suppression. Even today, many believe the government's goal is to erase the historic event from the nation's memory.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene. We are marking an important anniversary this morning. 25 years ago today, NPR's Lynn Neary delivered the news. Chinese government soldiers had opened fired on tens of thousands of unarmed pro-democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.


LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: An assault that began yesterday, an assault that turned into a massacre. The main battle went on inside Tiananmen Square. The ferocity of attack is evident in the square today. The bullet holes, the smoldering broken buses, the battered barricades, the blood, the curses scrawled in blood on the pavement.

GREENE: Descriptions of the events 25 years ago now. Immediately following that brutal crackdown, the government began a long-term campaign of suppression in China. The government never released a death toll, evidence was destroyed, and even now the ruling Communist Party continues to forbid discussion of the subject. Many believe the party's goal is to erase the historic event from the nation's memory. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is with us from Beijing and joins us on the line. Anthony, is this anniversary being marked in any public way in Beijing?

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: There's no sign, anywhere, of any public remembrance. A few people tried to have a private remembrance - some intellectuals last month, and several of them have been arrested out on the street. There's just no sign of it. I mean, there are reports that people whose family members, whose children were killed may have gone to their graves today but a lot of them were accompanied by police. This is, you know, the 25th anniversary is particularly sensitive this year. And the government has clearly put a lot of effort into making sure there's no public sign of any remembrance and no sign of any loosening in the official government verdict of the events.

GREENE: Have you gone to the scene of where what we just heard about took place - Tiananmen Square, itself?

KUHN: Yeah, I went there today around noon time. And I was stopped at a police checkpoint and told it was quote on quote, "inconvenient for me to proceed", which meant that they didn't want me there. I went around the corner, hopped in a taxi and just did a circle around Tiananmen Square and basically, you know, I'd say it was very subdued. The security was so tight with all the police checkpoints - basically, police at every intersection in the downtown area. Security was so heavy that the usual flow of tourists was down to a trickle - airport-style security bag checks and police everywhere.

GREENE: So all of this activity - the show of force, Anthony, I mean, who were the authorities really targeting here?

KUHN: Well, I think it goes beyond people who have anything to do with the Tiananmen Square massacre. I mean, my advice to anyone going to Tiananmen Square today would be to try to look like an affluent tourist. You know, they're not just targeting people who lost relatives, who might protest or try to commemorate the event. Police are on the outlook for any sort of either dissent and of course, you know, one reason that security is so tight is that there have been a number of terrorist attacks, a spate of attacks in recent weeks. So they're basically just trying to get rid of any public signs of dissent or unrest.

GREENE: Anthony, what about the Internet? I mean, is that a place where people can have a conversation about this anniversary?

KUHN: Well, of course, there was no Internet 25 years ago. And the advent of social media and blogs has allowed for a lot of debate about political and social issues. But as far Tiananmen Square and June 4th are concerned, any reference to it, however oblique, is being blocked and deleted. So the web is scrubbed pretty clean.

GREENE: What privately - do you get a sense that this day has resonance for people in China even if they can't, you know, express their views publicly?

KUHN: As time goes on, and the country develops, I think the government's narrative that this was a, you know, a threat to economic development and once it was put down, you know, the foreigners would still come and invest and that China made the right choice - I think that narrative gets reinforced. But at the same time, the things that people were demonstrating for a 1989 modern governance - more democratic governance and effective checks on power - those things are completely, you know, front and center in the current discourse, the current agenda. And there's no sign that they're going to go way, they only get pressing with each year that passes.

GREENE: OK, we've been speaking to NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Beijing on this anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Anthony, thanks very much.

KUHN: You're welcome, David.

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