I was giving a talk about Tiananmen Square’s legacy at an Australian university about two years ago when a young Chinese student put up her hand during the question-and-answer session. “Why do we have to look back to this time in history?” she asked. “Why do you think it will be helpful to current and nowadays China, especially our young generation? Do you think it could be harmful to what the Chinese government calls the harmonious society?”
She wasn’t challenging the facts of what had happened on June 4, 1989. She was questioning the value of the knowledge itself. In the years since I wrote about Beijing’s success in erasing the killings of 1989 from collective memory, I’ve often heard Chinese students defending the government’s behavior as necessary. But this argument was different. The student was deftly sidestepping her government’s act of violence against its own people, while internalizing Beijing’s view that social stability trumps everything else. At the end of the talk, a second Chinese student came up to ask whether the very knowledge of June 4 could be dangerous to “our perfect society.”
For the 660,000 Chinese students overseas, stumbling across these hidden episodes in their country’s history for the first time can be extraordinarily discombobulating, as if the axis of the world has suddenly shifted out of whack. For some, such discoveries are so disturbing that it is easier to discount them as Western conspiracies designed to undermine the Communist Party.
These overseas students are part of China’s post-Tiananmen generation, raised in the era of patriotic education, which emphasizes China’s century of national humiliation at the hands of the Western and Japanese colonial powers. History has become an ideological tool, with certain episodes celebrated for showing the party’s best version of itself, while others are rooted out and erased. The narrative that runs throughout this discourse is China’s modern-day renaissance, driven by its refusal to be bullied by outside powers. All of this is in the ultimate service of legitimizing the current leadership.
One version of this national story of rejuvenation is embodied by today’s popular heroes, especially businessmen like Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, one of China’s biggest companies. He grew up poor and learned English by giving free tours to foreign tourists, embodying a rags-to-riches tale that mirrors the country’s economic rise.
Another version is personified in the traditional Communist heroes whose exploits fill schoolbooks. The so-called Five Heroes of Langya Mountain, for example, were members of the Eighth Route Army in 1941 during the Japanese occupation of China. Facing capture by the Japanese, they instead chose to jump off a mountain, and three lost their lives. When a historian questioned this legend recently and was sued, the court decided against him, finding that the national sentiments and historical memories reflected in this story were important components of modern China’s socialist core values. History, in other words, is used explicitly for political ends, and historical research can be seen as defamation.
In this state-approved narrative, there is no place for the People’s Liberation Army’s act of opening fire on its own people. And the battle over the memory of 1989 is now a global one, waged in classrooms, in print and online. Academic journals and tech companies have censored June 4-related content. Whether this happens under direct pressure from Beijing or as a pre-emptive act of self-censorship for commercial reasons hardly matters anymore. In one recent case, a Chinese online education company that employs 60,000 teachers in the United States and Canada sacked two American teachers for discussing Tiananmen and Taiwan with their students in China. And as Chinese companies acquire news media overseas, they have direct levers over sensitive issues like the Tiananmen anniversary and human rights coverage more broadly.
In some ways, indoctrinating China’s young people with a utilitarian view of history is an even more powerful tool than censorship itself. When people accept that history must serve the interests of the state, they become closed off to the spirit of academic inquiry or even idle curiosity.
There are still, of course, young people whose independence of mind is stronger than Beijing’s ideological education. Occasionally, some will sidle up to me after a talk and quietly ask what they can do with this new knowledge weighing them down. One stood up in front of a room of Americans and declared: “I spent 18 years of my life in China, and I realize now that I know nothing about my own country’s history. I went to the best schools, the most well-regulated schools, and I know nothing about anything.”
While all countries construct their own national narratives, few manage to rival the power of China’s deeply emotive patriotic nationalism and its unquestioned ability to punish those who publicly question the official version of history.
The danger is that these tactics are so effective that China’s history is splitting in two: the Communist Party’s narrative at home, and other, more nuanced versions overseas. That divide may prove impossible to mend.
Louisa Lim is a senior lecturer at the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and the author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited.