The other night my niece asked me to tell her the story of Tiananmen Square. So I turned history into a fairy tale suited to her young age ...
Once upon a time in a land far, far away, an old butcher ran a humble meat shop. One night, he got into a heated argument with his sons over how to manage his struggling business. In a fit of rage, the father reached for his cleaver and went on a bloody rampage. Shocked by his own actions, the man buried the bodies and vowed to be a better father to his remaining children.
As the years passed, the butcher shop prospered and the family grew. Still, any discussion of the murders that night was forbidden. Convinced that he would never be forgiven, the old man decided to wait until everyone who witnessed the murders had forgotten. With each passing day, as memories thinned and denial thickened, the old butcher’s chance for atonement ebbed away like a receding tide.
A forgotten tale
The Tiananmen Square Crackdown, more delicately referred to as the “June 4 Incident”, was the most senseless chapter in Chinese history since the Cultural Revolution. On June 3, 1989, no resident would have imagined their government sending in tanks in the dead of night and firing on unarmed demonstrators still asleep in their tents.
The chain of events leading to the bloody crackdown was surreal. Not two months before June 4, excited students camped in the heart of the capital, shouting slogans one moment and singing left-wing anthem The Internationale the next. Two weeks before June 4, student leaders in pyjamas sat next to party chiefs in the Great Hall of the People exchanging ideas on political reform.
The students had hoped they could reach compromise through negotiation, but failed to understand they were dealing with party seniors who took the slightest criticism as a personal insult. In the end, the student demonstrators got a lesson no textbook could teach them. And hundreds became part of a story they would never live to tell.
Three years ago – a quarter of a century later – Tiananmen Square was again on complete lockdown. Security had been heightened, and armed police were everywhere. Determined to make the anniversary a national non-event, authorities removed dissidents from the capital and kept the less vocal ones under temporary house arrest. Twitter, Instagram and other social media were blocked for a “national internet service maintenance day”.
However, Beijing has little to worry about. June 4 is nothing but a historical footnote for most mainland Chinese. Young people born after the incident haven’t learned or heard anything about it, at least not through public discussions or school books. And in a country with the fastest growing population of millionaires in the world, money speaks louder than ideology. These days, university students are busy applying to graduate schools worldwide and interviewing with multinational companies.
The story remembered
Three years ago, I attended the candlelight vigil at Victoria Park in Hong Kong. With teary eyes and a heavy heart, I put on a black-and-white outfit as if I were going to a dear friend’s funeral. Every space in the park that could be occupied was filled, as far as the eye could see. Every one of us chanted pro-democracy slogans and strained to hear impassioned speeches.
Twenty-eight years ago, demonstrators filled Tiananmen Square to demand the vindication of ousted party chief Hu Yaobang. Twenty-five years later, I was among 150,000 people sitting in a peaceful protest demanding the vindication of those very demonstrators. That night, our city was the collective conscience of the 1.3 billion Chinese people around the globe and a beacon of hope for a better China. I had never been prouder of being a part of this city.
The next chapter
If this were a fairy tale, my niece would thank me for the bedtime story and fall sound asleep. But we don’t live in a fairy tale. In reality, my nieces and nephews have never asked me about Tiananmen Square, and I’ve never told them the story of the old butcher and his slaughtered children. Our next generation is too young to be interested in politics or too busy with exams.
But I want them to ask me what this anniversary really means. I want the next generation to know their country and its history, because how we remember our past defines who we are and how we live our future.
This story first appeared in Jason Y. Ng’s 2014 book No City for Slow Men and was edited for this publication.