On June 4, 1989, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was mobilised and sent to Beijing to counter weeks of peaceful protests headed by the Beijing Students’ Autonomous Federation and the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation.

These protests called for political reform, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, constitutional due process, the abolishment of nepotism, and democracy. They also rallied against the erosion of welfare and rising inflation that came as a result of the reforms of the 1980s, which led to the nascent market economy of the time.

Erasing the Past

The protests spread to more than 400 cities across the country, resulting in the State Council declaring martial law and mobilising up to 300,000 troops to violently suppress the protestors.

As a result, the university students, factory workers, Maoists, and pro-democracy advocates who were protesting in Tiananmen Square were brutally murdered on the morning of June 4 as troops advanced into Beijing with assault rifles and tanks, killing both protestors and bystanders alike. Estimates of the death toll range from several hundred to several thousand.

This marked a turning point for the Chinese regime. The government’s response to the protests set limits on the scope of political expression that still exist today. These limits now provide a precedent for the current Jinping regime to swiftly and aggressively crack down on dissent.

Indeed, any mention or form of remembrance of the Tiananmen Square massacre is widely associated with questioning the legitimacy of the CCP itself. The event has long since been erased from the history books and dubbed a censored topic in mainland China. Hong Kong remains the only Chinese city with large-scale Tiananmen commemorations, but this may not last for much longer.

Why Remembering Matters

Now in 2023, having just observed the 34th anniversary of the event and the third consecutive year that Hong Kong police have crushed the Tiananmen Square vigils under the draconian National Security Law of 2020, it seems more important than ever to keep the flame of remembrance burning.

The importance of remembrance is not just about the Tiananmen Square massacre as an isolated event. Rather, there exists a broader social responsibility to remember tragedy and malfeasance so that it may be prevented from reoccurring.

As the line between truth and fiction gets ever more blurred in the digital post-truth era, and as historical negationism is increasingly employed to suit contemporary narratives, it is important to commemorate those events that are actively being wiped from public consciousness.

If these pivotal events are lost or distorted, then the forces that seek to oppress freedom and democracy are afforded the opportunity to decontextualise their actions as normal. After all, a public that has no memory of alternatives or frameworks cannot properly judge their government’s actions, and cannot call it to justice.

A world in which the Tiananmen Square massacre is forgotten is a world in which it is doomed to be repeated.

Justified Defiance

The Chinese authorities have arrested and detained people in Hong Kong, charging them with displaying ‘items loaded with seditious wrongdoing,’ and for ‘chanting and committing unlawful acts.’ All this begs the following question: How can it be seditious to remember wrongs done to your own people? If remembrance is such a threat, then this indicates a sense of guilt and fear that justice may finally catch up with those who denied it to others. Given the circumstances, rebellion seems like a perfectly acceptable response.

The cruel irony of the Peoples Liberation Army murdering the Chinese people as they attempted to peacefully liberate themselves, should not be lost on anyone. To avoid another Tiananmen Square massacre from fading into obscurity and the Chinese state from achieving self-absolution by blurring the facts, the event must be remembered objectively.

In the West, Tiananmen Square often conjures the image of an unnamed man in a white shirt carrying shopping bags and standing in front of a row of tanks.

Today, it is up to us to don our own white shirts and stand in front of the tanks of denialism that rumble unopposed through the boulevards of modern society.

We must remember what they want us to forget.

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