Ever since, Chinese officials grow nervous in the run-up to the anniversary of the crackdown. This year they are especially jittery, fearful that the symbolic passage of a quarter of a century might encourage some dissidents to be more daring than usual in their public remembrance of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, who were killed.
Security forces around the country are on heightened alert, particularly in Tiananmen Square, the plaza that has become synonymous with the unrest.
Louisa Lim, a correspondent for America’s National Public Radio, writes in her new book, “The People’s Republic of Amnesia”, that China’s modern history “pivots on that night” of bloodshed in 1989.
Yet a new generation of young Chinese has since grown up that knows little of what happened, and appears not to care. Ms Lim showed students at leading Beijing universities the iconic photograph of the man standing in front of a column of tanks close to the square (above).
The party’s memory-eradication campaign has been so effective that only 15 out of 100 of them correctly identified the picture. As Ms Lim notes, many young Chinese see today’s prosperity as justification for the crackdown.
This year’s anniversary will not be mentioned by party-controlled Chinese-language media. Two years ago censors even tried to block online references to the Shanghai stock exchange when it fell 64.89 points in a day, a number that sounds like June 4th 1989.
Few will notice this year’s information blackout, other than the rebels of the era, some elderly intellectuals and the relatives of those who died.
No one expects more than a handful of small-scale isolated efforts to mark the occasion inside China; the only exception may be Hong Kong, where controls are much lighter.
But the memories that remain are potent, as Ms Lim shows, which is why the party still expends so much effort in trying to suppress them. The author offers a series of meticulously (and often daringly) reported portraits of participants, beginning with one of the least-told stories of all: what the soldiers who took part in the killings felt about their mission.
Chen Guang, now an artist in Beijing, was then a 17-year-old soldier with the martial-law troops. He describes how, in order to avoid being detected by the demonstrators, he and his fellow soldiers dressed as civilians and made their way by subway, bus or on foot to the Great Hall of the People overlooking the square. Others stormed their way into the city, shooting indiscriminately. (continue reading)