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Tiananmen at Twenty-five: “Victory Over Memory”

By Evan Osnos

June 3, 2014
“Tiananmen at Twentyfive ‘Victory Over Memory ” by Evan Osnos.
“Tiananmen at Twenty-five: ‘Victory Over Memory,’ ” by Evan Osnos.
The “History of the Chinese Communist Party, Volume 1,” the first entry in the Party’s official autobiography, appeared in 2002. Its authors had the luxury of hewing to a narrative of birth, growth, and triumph, covering the years between 1921 and the revolution, in 1949. After that, history gets dicier.

Volume 2, on the period from 1949 to 1978, had to tiptoe through a chronological minefield of purges, famine, policy disasters, and other awkward artifacts of history that many living officials would prefer to leave unexamined. The volume, a thousand and seventy-four pages long, was edited for sixteen years. It needed four major rewrites. It was vetted and scrubbed by sixty-four different government and Party agencies, and then received line edits from the most powerful families mentioned in its pages.

By the time it was released, in 2011, only one of the original three editors, Shi Zhongquan, had lived long enough to see it in print. “Writing history is not easy,” he said to the journalist Andrew Higgins. For all of the editors’ labors, the reception from independent scholars was not flattering; the official history explained that, once Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward drove the nation into famine, he “worked hard to correct” the mistakes, a judgment that a Dutch scholar called a “barefaced lie.”

Volume 3 has yet to be written, but historians should prepare for an even knottier process. It will cover a period that includes not only China’s historic economic boom but also the bloody crackdown that ended the demonstrations at Tiananmen Square in 1989, an event that has turned out to be among the most thoroughly and systematically suppressed memories in the history of official histories. Initially, the problem with Tiananmen was not that it was documented too little. There were so many eyewitness accounts that, as Louisa Lim writes in her new book, “The People’s Republic of Amnesia,” “publishing houses worldwide were rejecting them, citing the saturation of the market.” At the time, a dissident named Fang Lizhi predicted that the sheer volume of documentation would force a “failure of the ‘Technique of Forgetting History,’ ” which had been so essential to Party control.

Fang, who died in 2012, underestimated the capacity to forget. June 4th marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the military onslaught that ended nearly two months of pro-reform protests in Beijing and in other Chinese cities. When tanks and soldiers moved through the capital, they killed hundreds of students and city residents; the precise death toll remains a state secret. On the anniversary, those deaths will undoubtedly go unmentioned in the Chinese press and in Chinese schools, and, as much as the censors can manage, they will be blocked on the Chinese Web. (The digital filter is so tight that targets unrelated to Tiananmen get caught in it: for a while, Chinese programmers were barred from updating a software system because the version number, 0.6.4, corresponded with June 4th. People still look for ways around the blocks, using codes—“May 35” “63 plus 1”—but the censors catch up, and the cat-and-mouse game continues.)

To prevent any commemoration of the anniversary, the government has, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an activist group, “detained, disappeared or summoned” dozens of lawyers, activists, artists, and journalists. Unlike in past years, this sweep—the largest round of detentions in China since the Arab Spring—has targeted not only attempts at public protests but also memorials in private homes. The lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and four others who attended a private meeting to commemorate the crackdown were detained under a newly expansive violation known as “picking quarrels.” In anticipation of the anniversary, the government has also disrupted Google searches and access to Gmail, and has blocked additional foreign news sites, such as the Chinese-language edition of the Wall Street Journal.


A Moment of Magic, Courtesy of Pigeons

In 1949, the year of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, George Orwell, in “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” conjured a future in which the ruling party declares, “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” Orwell describes the process of forgetting as a matter not of technology but of will. “All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory,” he wrote.

Today, technology and globalism are prying open the private, economic, and social lives of China’s people. But, in matters of politics and history, the Party is determined to silence even the “few flies” that Deng Xiaoping once described as a bearable side effect of an open window to the world. The more inconvenient the arguments, the more the Party vows to obscure them. Qu Qingshan, a senior historian working for the Party Central Committee, told China’s Oriental Outlook magazine that “a large number of publications that distort Party history” had recently been released by Chinese authors abroad. “This brings chaos to education on Party history within China,” he said. History, Qu argued, is not about a diversity of views and facts: “Studying Party history is mainly to increase social consensus and unity.”

China’s President, Xi Jinping, took power in March, 2013, and he has proved to be especially determined to control the past. In a communiqué to Party members a month after his ascension, the leadership warned that “historical nihilism” posed a threat to the Party’s very existence. The act of rejecting C.C.P. history is “tantamount to denying the legitimacy of the CCP’s long-term political dominance,” they wrote.


A remarkable fact about the Party’s determination to shape history is how effective it has been in framing the violence in 1989 as insignificant in the grand scheme, because it came amid broader gains in human development. In the government’s only official acknowledgement of the anniversary, the Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said, “In the last three decades and more of reform and opening up, China’s enormous achievements in social and economic development have received worldwide attention. The building of democracy and the rule of law have continued to be perfected.” The message has been delivered to young people, in particular. We often imagine that young Chinese know nothing about the events of 1989; reporters who ask students to identify the image of the “tank man” frequently get blank stares. But more than a few students know the details and have applied a shade to the history. Several years ago, I met Liu Yang, a graduate student in environmental engineering at Stanford, who grew up in China. We happened to be chatting on the day of the nineteenth anniversary of Tiananmen Square, and, as I later wrote in The New Yorker, I asked him what he thought of the incident. He said, “If June 4th had succeeded, China would be worse and worse, not better.”

The Party, of course, agrees, but it does not have enough confidence in the position to expose it to public debate. The Party may be proud of insuring stability, but Tiananmen Square has become unmentionable. Members of the military who took part in putting down the demonstrations were given souvenir watches with a picture of the Gate of Heavenly Peace and inscribed with the words “June 89 to Commemorate the Quelling of the Turmoil.” But today military leaders who have risen into the senior ranks of political leadership have scrubbed their involvement in the incident from their official biographies. As Zhang Gang, a former policy adviser to the Beijing leadership, told the Telegraph this week, “They say they saved the Party and the country. So how come no one wants to be associated with it, to remember it or to take credit for this supposed triumph?”

Forgetting can be an act of will, but so can remembering. By staying silent on the events of Tiananmen Square instead of making a case that it was a mistake in the rise of a nation, Party leaders have not succeeded in effacing it from history. They have simply ceded the subject to their opponents, and, year by year, Tiananmen is discovered and rediscovered by young people, for whom it is a stark measure of the gap between China’s official and unofficial histories.

Photograph: Patrick Zachmann/Magnum


作者:Evan Osnos



到2011年发布时,最初的三位编辑中只有石仲泉一人活到了现在,可以看到它被印刷出来。"他对记者安德鲁-希金斯说:"编写历史并不容易。对于所有编辑的劳动,独立学者的接待并不令人满意;官方历史解释说,一旦毛主席的大跃进使国家陷入饥荒,他 "努力纠正 "错误,一个荷兰学者称这一判断是 "赤裸裸的谎言"。

第三卷还没有写完,但历史学家们应该为一个更加棘手的过程做好准备。它将涵盖一个时期,不仅包括中国历史上的经济繁荣,还包括结束1989年天安门广场示威的血腥镇压,这一事件已被证明是官方历史上最彻底和系统地压制的记忆之一。最初,天安门事件的问题不是因为它被记录得太少。正如Louisa Lim在她的新书《失忆的人民共和国》中写道:"全世界的出版社都在拒绝它们,理由是市场已经饱和"。当时,一位名叫方励志的持不同政见者预言,大量的文件将迫使"'遗忘历史的技术'失败",而这种技术对党的控制是如此重要。


为了防止任何纪念活动,根据中国人权卫士这一活动团体的说法,政府已经 "拘留、失踪或传唤 "了数十名律师、活动家、艺术家和记者。与往年不同的是,这次扫荡--这是自 "阿拉伯之春 "以来中国最大的一轮拘留行动--不仅针对公开抗议的企图,也针对私人住宅中的纪念活动。浦志强律师和其他四人参加了一个纪念镇压的私人会议,他们被拘留,罪名是新近扩大的 "寻衅滋事 "行为。为了迎接周年纪念,政府还中断了谷歌搜索和Gmail的访问,并封锁了更多的外国新闻网站,如《华尔街日报》的中文版本。



1949年,中华人民共和国成立的那一年,乔治-奥威尔在《一九八四》中设想了一个未来,其中执政党宣布:"谁控制了过去,谁就控制了未来:谁控制了现在,谁就控制了过去。" 奥威尔将遗忘的过程描述为一个不是技术而是意志的问题。他写道:"所需要的只是对自己的记忆进行一系列无休止的胜利,"。

今天,技术和全球主义正在撬开中国人民的私人、经济和社会生活。但是,在政治和历史问题上,党决心让 "几只苍蝇 "闭嘴,邓小平曾将此描述为向世界开放窗口的可承受的副作用。越是不方便的论点,党越是发誓要掩盖它们。为党中央工作的高级历史学家曲青山告诉中国的《瞭望东方周刊》,"大量歪曲党史的出版物 "最近由中国作者在国外发行。"他说:"这给中国国内的党史教育带来了混乱。瞿秋白认为,历史不是关于观点和事实的多样性。"学习党史主要是为了增加社会共识和团结。"

中国国家主席习近平于2013年3月上台,事实证明他对控制历史特别坚决。在他上台一个月后给党员的一份公报中,领导层警告说,"历史虚无主义 "对党的存在构成威胁。他们写道,拒绝中共历史的行为 "相当于否认中共长期政治统治的合法性"。


关于中共塑造历史的决心,一个引人注目的事实是,它一直在有效地将1989年的暴力事件说成是在宏伟计划中无足轻重的,因为它是在人类发展的更广泛成果中发生的。外交部发言人洪磊在政府对周年纪念的唯一官方承认中说:"在过去30多年的改革开放中,中国在社会和经济发展方面的巨大成就受到全世界的关注。民主和法治建设不断得到完善"。这个信息已经传递给了年轻人,特别是年轻人。我们经常想象中国的年轻人对1989年的事件一无所知;记者要求学生辨认 "坦克手 "的形象时,经常得到白眼。但更多的学生知道这些细节,并为这段历史抹上了一层阴影。几年前,我遇到了刘洋,他是斯坦福大学环境工程专业的研究生,在中国长大。我们碰巧在天安门广场19周年纪念日那天聊天,正如我后来在《纽约客》上写的那样,我问他对这一事件的看法。他说:"如果六四成功了,中国会越来越糟糕,而不是更好"。

党当然同意,但它对这一立场没有足够的信心,不会将其暴露在公众辩论中。党可能为确保稳定而感到自豪,但天安门广场已成为不可提及的地方。参与镇压示威活动的军队成员获得了印有天安门图片的纪念手表,上面刻有 "纪念6月89日平息动乱 "的字样。但是今天,已经升入政治领导层高层的军事领导人已经从他们的官方传记中抹去了他们在这一事件中的参与。正如北京领导层的前政策顾问张刚本周对《每日电讯报》所说:"他们说他们拯救了党和国家。那么,为什么没有人愿意与之相关,记住它或为这一所谓的胜利邀功?"


照片。Patrick Zachmann/Magnum
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