How The Tiananmen Square Massacre Has Been Largely Forgotten

Jul 1, 2014
Originally published on June 4, 2014 1:31 pm

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, when university students occupied the square to protest corruption and call for democratic reforms. The government responded with force and fire.

So much of the history of that event has been forgotten. When NPR’s Louisa Lim visited some top Chinese universities, she found a majority of young people who could not identify one of the quintessential images from that protest — a picture of ‘tank man,’ a lone civilian stopping an oncoming line of military tanks.

Lim attempts to answer the question of how this happened in her new book, “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited.” She discusses it with Here & Now’s Robin Young.


  • Louisa Lim, international correspondent for NPR, based in Beijing. She’s author of “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited.” She tweets @limlouisa.
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


Well, Chinese censors have been busy scrubbing the web of any mention of events in Beijing's Tiananmen Square 25 years ago, when tanks moved in to clear out students occupying the square in an amazing display of people power pushing for reforms and more democracy. The military response was ultimately more powerful, though. It's impossible to know how many were killed, but estimates range from the hundreds to the thousands.

There were no TV cameras there, but one of the quintessential images, a photo of a man in a white shirt and dark pants standing alone on a wide avenue leading to the square - a lone citizen bringing a line of approaching military tanks to a complete stop. He'd become known as Tank Man.

To this day his identity and fate are unknown, as is that image, at least in China. How can that be? NPR's Louisa Lim attempts to answer the question in her book, "The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited." We want to spend a few minutes with her. And she joins us from Washington. Louisa, welcome.

LOUISA LIM: Yes, thank you.

YOUNG: Well, thank you for your reporting. And we're getting reports leading up to today. For instance, artists - one who was formally a soldier, detained, arrested in China. The country's cracking down around this anniversary.

LIM: Yes, they certainly are. And this year the crackdown in the run-up to the anniversary has been much more intense than it has been in the past. For example, the former soldier that you mentioned, Guo Jian, is actually an Australian citizen, and he was arrested just a couple of days ago after talking to The Financial Times newspaper. So nowadays it seems even discussing the topic of Tiananmen Square is enough to get you detained.

And we've also seen groups of people who met in private inside someone's apartment to have a private seminar commemorating June 4. Fifteen people met and five of them still remain in criminal detention. In fact, Amnesty has compiled a list and said they have counted up 66 people who have been detained or had their freedom restricted in some way, like being placed under house arrest, in the run-up to this anniversary.

YOUNG: Which is why you had to consider a lot of things before you even wrote your book. Your family's now out of China. You wouldn't have wanted to endanger them. And you had to be very careful about the people you talked with. And we're going to be very careful now in broadcasting some of what you wrote. And that's quite different from having it in a book.

But I want to touch on your recent reporting because it's incredible, even though we are handwringing over what's happening to people in China, there are people being detained. There are people there who really don't know what the fuss is about. You went to four universities. You brought along a copy of that image that we were speaking of - the iconic picture of Tank Man. What did you find?

LIM: Well, I was very surprised to discover how few students actually recognized that image. I mean, at first I hadn't really known what to expect. But you read so much about Internet penetration in China and how that's breaking down the government control over information - the fact that China now has 618 million Internet users.

These kids who are at the top universities, for sure they'll be on the Internet and for sure they would know how to get around government controls and find out about things like 1989 if they wanted to do so. And yet, when I produced the picture of Tank Man and showed it to them, there were a lot of very blank faces with no flicker of recognition whatsoever.

YOUNG: Let's listen to some of that interaction.


LIM: Have you seen that picture before?


LIM: Never?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Is it from South Korea?

LIM: Have you seen this picture before?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I'm sorry, I don't know.

LIM: Never seen it?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It's not in China, right?

LIM: It is in China.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It is in China. Where?

LIM: Have you seen this picture before?


LIM: Never?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I have no memory about it.

YOUNG: Well, Louisa, I want to ask you more about that experiment, taking that picture around. But as I was hearing your reporting, I was wondering how was she able to take that picture around? I mean, was there security? I mean, were you nervous during that?

LIM: I was quite nervous. I mean, I actually had a journalist card. So, you know, I had absolute license to be walking around asking people questions. And there was no security around. But it was astonishing the extent to which I myself had internalized government censorship, that I actually got quite worried that perhaps someone would turn me into the university authorities and that I might get detained just for showing a picture in public.

And, I mean, I should say, only 15 out of the 100 students that I interviewed could recognize that picture. So actually the chances of being turned in weren't really that high. But it was just how nervous I was. And it made me realize how difficult it is for people who know what happened to talk about it. If I who has a card has a license to talk about it and I'm feeling so nervous, what would ordinary people be feeling?

YOUNG: Well, let's listen to one of those 15 that actually knew what you were showing him. Let's listen.

LIM: Have you seen this picture before?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oh, my God, yes.

LIM: I'm surprised how few people know here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Actually, in this school, in this university, many students actually know this.

LIM: But many don't know. More people don't know that know. Many kids have never seen this before.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yes, government does not let us know.

YOUNG: Again, he says that's because the government doesn't let us know. Louisa, tell us more about that. How is this possible? As you said, you know, there is some Internet usage there. Has it been - has that image been completely expunged? Where did this moment in history go?

LIM: Yes, well, it is surprising the extent to which the memories of something that happened after all within living memory can be deleted. But that's really what seems to have happened in this case. One Chinese author said that amnesia is a state-sponsored sport in China. And it really seemed as if the state's efforts to erase the memories of Tiananmen have been extremely successful.

I mean, for a lot of young kids like those that I spoke to, they're just simply not interested in 1989 or indeed in politics at all. And I think that's one of the legacies of Tiananmen, that they perceive politics as something dangerous and something to stay away from. And of course after Tiananmen, all of that energy was poured to making money and to economic development.

And for the vast majority of these kids, that is their major concern nowadays, you know, finding a good job, making money, being able to buy an apartment and get married and this kind of thing. So they just simply steer well clear of politics.

YOUNG: And, Louisa, as part of your research, you went to this huge square, Tiananmen Square - it's the size of 60 soccer fields - to see a new ritual that's just recently being instituted. At one time there was one soldier who went out and raised a flag. But now many troops come.

It's a flag raising that thousands of people flock to see. And it's literally replaced the memories of the past. People come at dawn, barriers are put up, everyone feels a special occasion. They want to take pictures of this flag being raised. It's just an invented ritual to re-create what Tiananmen means?

LIM: Well, I think it was the other major problem of the government's post-Tiananmen strategy because after sending in their army to open fire on unarmed civilians, their legitimacy was really destroyed. And they needed to find a way to reclaim their legitimacy. And really the only value that the Communist Party leaders shared with the students and the protesters - the people on the street - was nationalism. So that became a very important value for them to embrace.

So after Tiananmen, they put in place a very big program of patriotic education. Part of that was this instituting this new flag raising ceremony, which is really a communion of national Chinese identity. And it's been - all of it has been remarkably successful in creating, you know, people who are very patriotic and very proud of being Chinese.

And I mean, indeed, it wasn't just the flag raising ceremony, in the schools, the textbooks were rewritten. A lot of patriotic films and TV shows are shown, you know. In the newspapers it's all reinforced in all the state-run media. And it's been remarkably effective.

YOUNG: Well, so, Louisa Lim, where does Tiananmen live now? People want to move on. Moving on has become a key survival tactic.

LIM: Yes, indeed. I mean, one of the slogans that the government popularized was, look to the future. And that's very much been what people have taken away. That the past is not worth thinking about, that it's better to direct your energies towards the future, towards making money and to not think about what happened in the past.

So I think although some of the amnesia has come from above - you know, you won't find pictures of June the 4 on the Chinese Internet or in Chinese textbooks, but some of it has also been accepted by the Chinese people who really see no benefit in looking back. You know, why remember such a traumatic episode in their past and especially when you could actually be punished for remembering it. There's really no benefit in remembering. So people have instead looked away from it.

YOUNG: Well, and remind us what they're looking away from. How many died?

LIM: So that is something which is still unknown. The government's initial figures that they released - the Chinese government - were that 241 people died. But witnesses believe that was much too low a figure. But actually nobody knows the actual figure.

It could be as high as several thousand. But people who were there - Western journalists who were there - some of them say it could have been between 400 and 800. But the real truth is that nobody knows.

YOUNG: Well, in your interview for your book, people who were there - a student, a soldier, who looks back with chagrin on his participation, a mother, whose son was killed. Are they erased from history to?

LIM: That is the thing which is so difficult for people who remember to bear - the fact, that they are the only ones who appear to remember what happened. And it really marks them out. So the soldier that you were talking about, his participation in clearing the square on June the 4 really - it came to define his life. And he said, the thing about remembering is it really marks you out from the mainstream. You find their world is no longer your world.

So it is very difficult for people who continue to remember and particularly for the mother who lost her 19-year-old son that day. He was shot in the head with an army bullet. She spent a long time tracking down exactly how he had died. And ever since, afterwards she set up with another woman, Professor Ding Zalin, they set up this organization, this sort of loose group of relatives of those that died that day. And ever since they have been trying to seek truth, accountability and compensation from the Chinese government. But the sad truth is that 25 years for them has not produced any change in the government's stance.

YOUNG: And, Louisa, we talk here in the U.S. We just recently had May 4, which was Kent State, still for a lot of people. What are people doing with this date in China?

LIM: Well, it's interesting. I mean, those people who do remember, do try to find ways - very small ways - of remembering. So what you see nowadays is online. You see as kind of cat-and-mouse game playing out with censors as people try to find ways to commemorate it virtually and then the censors clamp down.

So one year, instead of saying June the 4, people started talking about May the 35. And then the words May the 35 were banned.

This year all kinds of phrases have been banned like, that day, and mourn, and even the phrase when spring turns to summer has been banned. And sometimes they remove the emoticons like the candle emoticon from - so that people can't post those. But you do see these small gestures happening by people who do remember.

From the government's side, you see repression, and we're seeing a very, very strict - a large security presence at Tiananmen Square - all kinds of methods of trying to stop people from going to the square. I mean, Western journalists are being warned not to go to the square this year. And foreigners that do go to Tiananmen Square are being stopped and frisked multiple times, having their IDs checked. So there is a very strict, very repressive atmosphere in Beijing this year.

YOUNG: NPR's Louisa Lim. Again, her book is "The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited." Louisa, thanks so much.

LIM: Thank you, Robin.

YOUNG: And, Jeremy, it makes you think about so many things including what about the Chinese who travel outside the country and see these images and go back? But I suppose, as she said, it's unbearable to remember.


Well, and also in Hong Kong where - which is the special administrative region of China where you can access things like Google and you can look up whatever you want. I was there earlier this year and it's funny. You go on the Internet in Shanghai and there are a lot of restricted sites. But in Hong Kong, you can do whatever you need to.

YOUNG: Well, and Tiananmen was remembered today in Hong Kong, a special celebration - actually a memorial. People held candles. Organizers said more than 180,000 people attended. So where they have access, they remember.

HOBSON: Yeah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.