Jeffrey Wasserstorm: Looking Back at the June 4 Massacre, Twenty-Four Years On

Roundup: Talking About History
tags: Jeffrey Wasserstrom, China, anniversaries, Tiananmen Square

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine. He is co-editor (with Angilee Shah) of Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land (University of California Press, 2012) and also a short anthology, China Stories, published as an ebook by the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Late last year and early this year, I worked with Maura Elizabeth Cunningham on creating the second edition of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, a short book with a question-and-answer format whose first edition came out in 2010. Given how quickly China has been changing, there were many things that needed updating, especially in chapters that come late in the book. Since work on the first edition was completed late in 2009, Liu Xiaobo and Mo Yan won Nobel prizes, the microblogging platform weibo took off, and there was a dramatic uptick in environmental protests—to name just a few recent developments that Maura and I needed to address in the 2.0 version. Today, though, I am thinking with sorrow of a section in a chapter titled “From Mao to Now” that I wish we needed to revise, but didn’t—the answer to the following question: “Why Hasn’t the Chinese Government Changed Its Line on Tiananmen?”...

It would be wrong, though, to give the impression that there is nothing to say about China’s 1989 that could not have been said in the 1990s. And despite the government’s disturbing refusal to budge on its “Big Lie” about the protests—a lie that denies the patriotism of the protesters and asserts that the only innocents slain on June, 4, 1989, were the small number of soldiers who died that day—there are some hopeful things to note about remembrance and forgetting.

One thing that stands out are the vigils commemorating the protesters and bystanders who died in the June 4 Massacre that continue to take place each year in Hong Kong. Residents of what was then a British Crown Colony made various important contributions to the 1989 protests, holding rallies to express support for those taking to the streets on the mainland and raising funds to send to the protesters in Beijing. It was not surprising that residents of the city would begin to gather on the anniversary of the crackdown to commemorate the courage of those who died in 1989. What has been surprising—and also deeply inspiring—is that these annual commemorations have continued after Hong Kong became incorporated into the People’s Republic of China as a Special Administrative Region....

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