Friday, June 6, 2014
25 years ago this week, untold hundreds of unarmed civilians were massacred in Beijing’s Tienanmen Square, by the People's Liberation Army. Since then, the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has attempted to erase the event from memory and from history.
The Tiananmen Square protests were a series of demonstrations beginning April 15, 1989 in and near Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Led mainly by students and intellectuals, the movement was generally against the government's authoritarianism, and voiced calls for economic change and democratic reform.
During the demonstrations, the students of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing built a 33 ft. statue in just four days, using foam and papier-mâché over a metal armature. Although inspired by and resembling the Statue of Liberty, to have more closely modeled their statue on the U.S. icon would have been seen as "too openly pro-American."
The Tiananmen Square movement used mainly non-violent methods, but on June 4, 1989, PRC government troops and tanks fired into the square, killing between 400 and 3,000 civilians. The Goddess of Democracy was destroyed.
Louisa Lim, China based correspondent for NPR and the BBC, just published a book about this repression of memory, titled: The People’s Republic of Amnesia—Tienanmen Revisited. While researching the book, Ms. Lim showed many young people the iconic photograph of the still unidentified man stopping a line of tanks. The photo, taken by Newsweek photographer Charlie Cole, won the 1989 World Press photo of the Year, and was featured in countless posters such as the one featured above. Almost no one Ms. Kim interviewed recognized the image. Some even asked if it were taken in North Korea or Kosovo!
But before we begin to applaud the U.S. for its freedom of speech and freedom of expression– after all, many photographs of atrocities committed in our name and with our tax dollars are available on the internet—we need to remember that 10 years before Ms. Lim wrote The People’s Republic of Amnesia, Gore Vidal wrote Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia. Years of underfunding the U.S. educational system is finally paying off. While few Chinese under the age of 30 may know the events of Tiananmen Square, an event that happened 25 years ago, few U.S. college students will recognize the iconic image of the hooded man from Abu Ghraib prison—and that was just 10 years ago. Historical amnesia knows no national boundaries, but hurts us all.