How Would Facing Its Past Change China’s Future?

A ChinaFile Conversation

David Wertime:

The memory of the 1989 massacre of protesters at Tiananmen Square remains neither alive nor dead, neither reckoned nor obliterated. Instead, it hangs spectre-like in the background, a muted but latently powerful symbol of resistance.

There’s no question that an honest accounting of the incident, colloquially known as “6/4,” would change China’s future. Clearly, Chinese authorities have calculated that facing the truth of Tiananmen would be more trouble than denying it. After all, a great deal of grassroots blowback could result from this revision to recent history. Who wants to be the official held responsible for that? Even if China’s new leaders—who were too junior in 1989 to have had personal culpability in the brutal crackdown—wanted to make a clean break from the past, doing so would implicate numerous power brokers and patrons within the Communist Party superstructure. Such a shift in the balance of power among a risk-averse leadership is unlikely to happen any time soon.

Yet putting aside internal power politics for a moment, a compelling argument can be advanced that it makes sense to face Tiananmen’s demons, not only for China’s long term stability, but for the Party’s. For one, the rise of digital media, which began in earnest in 2009, has made it harder to enforce the process of collective forgetting. Online censors are on high alert in the days leading up to and including the June 4th anniversary; this year, Internet company Sina even removed the candle emoticon from its Weibo platform. Nonetheless, they remain powerless to stop opinion leaders from discussing 6/4, or at least alluding to it in code. Anyone under 30 is probably too young to remember Tiananmen personally, but those older Chinese confronted with mentions of “that day, that month, that year” know what it means. Overlooking the cumulative impact of these allusions requires an affirmative effort.

It’s hard for authorities to plan around such an unstable quantity. Better for China’s leaders to give some breathing room to collective discussion of Tiananmen, even if no one is prepared to apologize yet. If censors stood down, the Party could take the people’s temperature on the issue, and gain a better sense of how it might explain its actions in a way that both satisfies most Chinese and accounts for the truth. This could be the start of a healing and self-examination process that would render the words “six, four” less explosive, although never inert.

Until the Chinese Communist Party takes the difficult step of facing its recent past, it will continue to abdicate an important leadership role to the nation’s dissidents and public intellectuals: guardian of the nation’s history and its conscience. That duty needs wider stewardship. An increasingly pluralistic, confident, and digital China surely can do better. Near-term change is unlikely, but we can always dream aloud.


I agree with both these points: that China would be better for it, and that it is unlikely to happen.  This is obviously a resonant date, but Tiananmen is not the only significant piece of recent history that cannot be discussed: China is one of the rare places in the world where the profession of historian is truly hazardous.  The long drawn out refurbishment of the National History Museum, one of the few high profile Chinese state projects in modern times to overshoot its deadline by more than two years, exemplifies the difficulties faced by a history minded nation that cannot freely discuss its recent past.  Since we are writing on this day, it’s worth remembering that one of the after-effects of those 1989 events was that history was declared a matter of national security: the old revolutionary history was displaced in favour of the natonalist version taught today, with its founding assertion that the interests of the nation  and the interests of the Party are the same. This version blames outside forces for China’s decline in the (19th, and fails to explore the first thirty years of CCP rule—land reform, the Anti-Rightist Movement, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution—where most of the bodies lie.  It is a temporal landscape swarming with ghosts and, in the Chinese tradition, unhappy ghosts will go on causing trouble in the present until their needs are met.


In 1989, I was in primary school in Sichuan. My experience of the Tiananmen Incident started with recognizing unfamiliar, scattered words and phrases. Beginning early that summer, I frequently heard the phrase from my aunt who was then in college: “Hunger strike.” Each day, on my way to school, I found the buildings on my route covered with posters. One word stood out: “Democracy.” The context in which these words were spoken didn't become clear to me until I went to Beijing for college. “Liu Si”—Chinese for 6/4, and code what happened in Tiananmen that June 4—became a siren call. The day was a dangerous, forbidden, tantalizing secret, especially when people abruptly veered away from talk of it if they felt the conversation might touch on this time and place. 

But I have always been able to hear the siren. It returns from time to time. One day, after a long talk with a professor of mine, he unexpectedly recounted how he had tried to persuade one of his favorite students not to go into the streets on June 4 and how he later carried his body back to campus. When I began work as a journalist, I discovered that many people were holding onto their stories of that day like secrets, no matter if they were environmentalists, journalists, lawyers or officials. When getting familiar with them, they didn't mind telling me their stories, quietly and in vivid detail.

But not everybody's willing to hear siren. In 2004, on the fifteenth anniversary of the Incident, I went to Tiananmen with a colleague. Plainclothes cops outnumbered the tourists posing for photos, smiling, excited, and a little tired. Each year, the government orders universities to watch their students more closely around June 4, but the order seems increasingly paranoid and ironic. When, for instance, I called another college professor of mine to check in, she told me students were busy looking for jobs and preparing for final exams. Without the order to remind them, June 4 would be like any other day.

At a high school reunion dinner back in my home town, I talked with old classmates about the secret. One woman who'd shared my cynicism when were teens, raised her head and looked at me with surprise and slight disappointment, saying, “You are so contrarian.”

I would remind readers that the Deng Xiaoping era, which carried on through Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao and continues today under President Xi Jinping, started with the famous slogan “in solidarity look forward” (tuanjie yizhi xiang qian kan)—a slogan that can be interpreted as a reproach to avoid facing the past.

Though China’s political values today may be more diverse across different social groups, it seems to me that most Chinese still are impacted greatly by government attitudes in their choice of approach to social, political, and historical issues.

China is a nation with a written history of 5,000 years. It is perhaps because of the length of its story that the nation often is cynical about its often heavy past. China remembers like an old person, recalling remote history more easily than it remembers yesterday. Political cleansing of people’s memory is one of the problems. I am sure, for instance, that every high school pupil in China knows more about 221 BC—the year Qing Shihuang unified China—than he does about AD 1912. What happened that year? What about in 1989?

I know that more and more young people today have become curious about 1989 and are getting around to exploring what happened. But these people are but a very tiny portion of the Chinese populace. In the 1980s, Deng’s slogan was mocked and rewritten as “in unity looking at money” (xiang qian kan). If only my fellow Chinese could see a chance to make money in the past, they definitely would remember the past, face the past, and make use of the past. Otherwise, there is no such thing called the past.

What kills me about the fact that the Chinese don’t look at or know their recent history is the growing sense that there could have been no other way. Since June 4, 1989, the Communist Party has been extremely effective in spinning the narrative to suggest that if the army hadn’t cracked down, there would be chaos in China today. What is forgotten is the fact that what was at play was nothing short of a power struggle at the highest level, between leaders with different visions for the future.

Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang, despite being a product of the Communist system, had started to see the dangers of not reforming the system politically: he launched a political reform institute that was exploring various models that might be adopted by China. He may not have seen it all clearly back then, but over the years, he came to believe that parliamentary democracy was the only way forward. As Zhao said in secretly taped interviews, published in 2009 as a memoir, “Prisoner of the State”:

“..If a country wishes to modernize, not only should it implement a market economy, it must also adopt a parliamentary democracy as its political system. Otherwise, this nation will not be able to have a market economy that is healthy and modern, nor can it become a modern society with a rule of law. Instead it will run into the situations that have occurred in so many developing countries, including China: commercialization of power, rampant corruption, a society polarized between rich and poor.”

When talking about corruption or the injustices of authoritarian rule, the Chinese often have a way of shrugging their shoulders and saying “沒辦法,”‭ ‬(méi bànfǎ) or “there’s nothing you can do about it.” But it’s important for young Chinese to know their history, to understand that things could have taken a very different direction, so that they can approach the future with open minds and help their country forge a better path.

One pull on this thread and the whole edifice of political control starts shaking. If June Fourth can be mentioned, the actions of senior retired leaders can be questioned: they and their clients will fight to protect themselves, ending the tenuous truce in elite politics. If June Fourth can be mentioned, the legitimacy of the current leaders can be examined: they are the heirs of Jiang Zemin, who was installed in 1989 in an illegal coup by Deng Xiaoping. If June Fourth can be mentioned, the issue it was all about can be raised: democracy. No wonder the leaders are scared of the topic. But June Fourth keeps coming back. And it sits silently at the heart of those discussions that are allowed and semi-allowed, about abuse of power, rule of law, universal values, official corruption, and constitutionalism. The issue seems to get harder to suppress as time goes by rather than easier. The effort to suppress it shows the vulnerability of the regime.

The place of memory, West and East. What a paradox that the society that has been most obsessed with remembering its history over the many milennia of its long evolution—even to the point of writing exhaustive dynastic histories as a way to memorialize the past, the better to start anew—has arrived more recently at a place where political sensitivities make it too complicated to allow its historical gate keepers to chronicle most of what has happened since 1950, honestly and publicly. The Chinese Communist Party’s infinitely complicated relationship to its own history has left so many historical no-fly zones, that Chinese today confront a picture that is something like a mosaic with most of the pieces missing. One giant missing piece is, of course, the traumatic events of 1989.

Does it matter? Is it possible that sometimes it may be best just to forget, if not forgive, rather than dwell on some unwelcome occurrence? Is the Chinese Communist Party perhaps wise not to dwell on the barbarous and tragic events that enveloped their capital city in the spring of 1989? After all, what’s done is done. What’s the point of rubbing salt in wounds by continually raising an event which has now passed, never to be re-enacted or set right again?

Perhaps the great Chinese writer Lu Xun was wrong when in 1926, after a group of students were shot dead in front of the Tiananmen Gate, he wrote: “This is not the conclusion of an incident, but a new beginning. Lies written in ink, can never disguise truths written in blood. All blood debts must be repaid in kind: the longer the delay, the greater the interest” Maybe.

One of the building blocks of modern Western civilization is the very Freudian notion that a life unexamined—one that is not introspective and does not strive continually to remember, understand and deal with how the past has made us who we are—is a recipe for disaster. Behind this assumption lies the also-very-Western notion that memory is a key to the process of maintaining mental health and comprehending something about how we came to be psychologically formed—or malformed, as the case may be. Implicit in all these assumptions—to which much of Western literature is consecrated—is the idea that the interior world of our being needs constant gardening to remain whole, humane, and functional; that it is not enough just to try and rearrange the exterior furniture in the room through various kinds of revolutions, but that we must also attend to our interiors, our psyches. Traumatic events, by this logic, are assumed to come back to haunt a person unless they are retrieved carefully and dealt with in a self-reflective way…before they start creating errant behavior.

By this same logic, a society that refuses to look inward and carefully call into consciousness and process its own history— especially a history that shows leaders harming their constituents in some grievous way—is a society destined to be unstable, unpredictable and to act out to the detriment of other societies around it, and to its own people.

When speaking either of individuals or societies there clearly are inappropriate, and certainly counter-productive, times to raise painful past incidents and historical events. But, that is not to say that what Freud called “repression” can be a successful long-term strategy for remedy. In the end, it is doubtless true that if individuals, like societies, are ever to escape their parlous pasts, it will often be only through the painful, almost psycho-analytic process of remembering, processing, coming to terms with, and perhaps even finally forgiving.

Such may sound like an indelibly Western notion steeped irrevocably in Judeo-Christian kultur with little relevance to Eastern cultures. But, in this day and age, you do not have to a follower of Sigmund Freud to believe that a healthy person, like a healthy society, almost inevitably needs to come to terms with who, or what, it is. To do that effectively, the always-painful process of engaging the gears of historical memory is almost inevitable. For the Chinese Communist Party to imagine that it alone might somehow be exempt from this ineluctable verity would seem arrogant folly.

Every society, like every person, makes grievous mistakes in the course of its existence. After the fact, the critical question becomes: What is each willing to do to correct those mistakes by way of understanding why they did what they did and by making amends both to themselves and others who have been harmed in the process. This is never an easy process, as any post-WWII German will tell you. And for a society like China, which for so long has been engaged first in the process of waging revolution against external enemies, and then just as aggressively leaning into the process of gaining the equally external affectations of “wealth and power” (富强 / fùqiáng), the very internal process of righting the wrongs of the past—all too many of which were self-inflicted—certainly will not be easy.

But, is it unavoidable? I suspect so. June 4th raises a challenge equally as daunting as making a revolution or enriching a nation—a challenge that represents but one of the many painful memories that Chinese leaders ultimately will have to address to undertake this painful but inescapable process of self-absolution.