China Still Seeks to Hide What Happened at Tiananmen Square 20 Years Ago

The Chinese government, in Beijing, controlled by a Communist party that allows no dissent, and no opposition, continues to suppress public awareness, discussion or inquiry, regarding the events of June 1989, in which the Chinese military massacred hundreds of student demonstrators.

The term Tiananmen produces filtered results in web searches, and the regime has blocked access to Twitter, Flickr, Blogger, the Huffington Post, LiveJournal, MSN’s Bing, and other sites, in an effort to prevent Chinese internauts from locating any reporting on the massacre of 4 June 1989. Now, as we mark the 20th anniversary of that tragic day, the Chinese government seeks to prevent any amount of dissent or “unrest” that might stem from public recognition of the crimes committed by government forces on that day.

We now know, however, that the decision to launch a violent military assault on the pro-democracy demonstrators, was a deliberate decision taken by the Central Committee of the ruling Communist party, over the objections of its then secretary general Zhao Ziyang. Zhao resigned in protest, tried to warn the demonstrators to disperse for their own safety, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest for his dissent.

In May, Café Sentido reported:

The private memoirs of former Chinese Communist party (CCP) leader Zhao Ziyang are to be published, as we near the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and the massacre that ended them. The diaries will be published this month, under the title Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Zhao Ziyang.

Zhao was secretary general of the central committee of the CCP from 1987 until he was deposed due to his opposition to the government’s hardline crackdown on student demonstrators gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, in June 1989. Zhao was subjected to 16 years of house arrest, and died in 2005. But the journals were so secret, their existence has not been confirmed until now.

In those diaries, Zhao called the massacre of peaceful demonstrators at Tiananmen Square “a tragedy to shock the world”, and clearly stated it could have been averted, had any of the party leadership sided with his view that the demonstrators should be permitted to protest or otherwise be peacefully dispersed. The violent crackdown remains to this day one of the great signs that liberalization of China by trade and engagement has been a moral failure.

Fully 20 years on, the Tiananmen massacre remains a source of intense government censorship. Major internet firms like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! were permitted to operate within China only on condition that they would bar access to any sites that speak of the massacre. Those who criticize the government for such acts are still detained, held without trial, even “disappeared”. In 2005, Sentido —now Café Sentido— reported that China’s president Hu Jintao had declared the launch of a “smokeless war” on press and dissidents.

Hu’s goal was to impose a severe crackdown on the freedom of Chinese individuals and groups to voice criticism for the government’s policies, without leaving the obvious “smoke” that would signal a fire of intimidation or abuse. The closing of internet cafes across China —usually on false claims of public health hazard, fire hazard, or building code violations— ensued.

In 2007, China began implementing temporary rules for foreign journalists, relaxing the restrictions on their movements inside China, in an effort to win favor among the world’s media, in advance of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. But Chinese journalists were being detained in increasing numbers, in an effort to control the nation’s public image by removing potentially offensive content those reporters might produce. The point was not lost on foreign media, who also complained they were banned from broadcasting live from Tiananamen Square.

Also in September 2007, a New York Times reporter, Zhao Yan, was released after being jailed for 3 years on allegations of publishing state secrets. At the time, at least 35 journalists and 51 cyber dissidents were known to be in Chinese jails. An unknown number of less visible critics or ordinary citizens who had sought redress for grievances against corrupt officials, or those close to them, was —and is now— also being held.

In December 2008, Reporters without Borders (RSF) condemned the Chinese government’s renewed constraints on media freedoms in a press release:

Reporters Without Borders condemns the Chinese government’s censorship of the websites of certain foreign news media such as Voice of America and the BBC and certain Chinese media based outside mainland China, which have been rendered inaccessible inside China since the start of December. “Freedom of information is widely violated in China,” Reporters Without Borders said.

“Right now, the authorities are gradually rolling back all the progress made in the run-up to this summer’s Olympic games, when even foreign websites in Mandarin were made accessible. The pretence of liberalisation is now over. The blocking of access to the websites of foreign news media speaks volumes about the government’s intolerance. We urge the authorities to unblock them again.”

Tensions are high, as reformists and critics of the government seek to recognize the anniversary and hold those responsible for the massacre accountable, at least in the court of public opinion and in the eyes of history. AFP reports:

China’s Communist leaders have made any discussion of the brutal quelling of the student-led demonstrations — in which hundreds, maybe thousands, were killed — taboo, but dissidents say the public could yet hold them accountable. “People remember this date because they want the Communist Party to take responsibility for the crimes it committed,” said 53-year-old Qi Zhiyong, who lost a leg after being shot by troops near Tiananmen Square.

The United States House of Representatives passed a resolution this week, by a margin of 396 to 1, calling on China to officially recognize the massacre, support a UN-backed independent investigation into the atrocities committed at Tiananmen Square, and free all political prisoners. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had unfurled a banner in Tiananmen Square, in 1991, critical of the government’s crackdown, but has chosen to make her demand for prisoner release in private in 2009.

Pelosi says she personally petitioned Pres. Hu for the release of 10 prisoners. She specifically named Hu Jia, a dissident the EU has awarded its Sakharov prize for freedom of thought. One California Congressman said on the House floor: “Twenty years ago this day, the government of China affirmed to the world that it is a criminal enterprise that is perfectly willing to murder unarmed people to stay in power”.

In the weeks leading up to the anniversary of the massacre, Chinese officials have gone as far as to remove specific pages from foreign news publications that make any reference to the crackdown or to efforts to suppress the free flow of information relating to the crackdown. Some fear the disapperance of critics and journalists could accelerate as the government seeks to bury the memory of the 1989 massacre of unarmed protesters.

To this day, the official story is that a violent network of plotters, seeking to overthrow the government, was successfully subdued in a responsible way. But even with that version of events, very little historical information is permitted to circulate in Chinese media, and it is expected the major media outlets in China will be officially barred from recognizing the anniversary at all.

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Originally published June 3, 2009, at

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