Whenever the massacre at Tiananmen Square twenty-five years ago comes up in conversation, I think of Faulkner’s famous line: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Some believe that China’s economic growth and rise to international prominence have lent the Chinese Communist Party a new legitimacy. But the people of Beijing understand better than anyone else how fragile this legitimacy truly is. The Party’s rule is unsustainable—as the continued abuses perpetrated under the “Chinese model” make all too clear—and has no stable moral foundation. Violence, fear, and lies are the very essence of Communist Party rule. So every year, before and after the day of the massacre, the regime lays bare its own fear and reveals the absurdity of its position. Public assembly is forbidden; intellectuals are arrested if they gather in private; tourists strolling across Tiananmen Square flashing V signs are pulled aside and interrogated. The effect, ironically, is to remind us all how important the massacre remains, even today.
Many people lament that the Party’s system of censorship and brainwashing has turned China into a society that forgets and evades the past. In some ways this is true. But think of other countries’ examples. In the late eighties, the loosening of state controls on expression in the Soviet Union unleashed a flood of media exposures revealing the abuses committed during the Stalin years. Though Stalin had been dead for more than three decades, long-suppressed memories rose to the surface, and the outcry against Stalin’s tyranny became an important force in bringing about the end Soviet rule. At the same time, in Taiwan, memories of the 2-28 Massacre 40 years earlier created an upswell of public feeling that challenged the Kuomintang’s monopoly on power.
Tiananmen is the regime’s Achilles heel, and it represents an important starting point for change. Its significance for the future of China will only become more evident with time.
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