Historical Memory: the Tiananmen Incident in China

Every country has its historical memory, which encompasses the memories of all the generations living there. However, it would be wrong to state that the commonly accepted presentation of historical events is the most impartial rendering of the events. On the contrary, history is continuously being rewritten by world governments to justify their actions. The episodes damaging the image are erased from records (Boyer and Wertsch 224). Historical events get embedded in people’s system of values, which often create constraints for their views (Lee 143). The memory changing process is usually caused by the trauma that the population received, which trigger determination to express negative attitudes referring to the actions of the government (Edkins 15).

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The paper at hand is a case study that attempts to analyze the Tiananmen incident in China and its theoretical and practical implications, as well as the governmental actions seeking to alter the perception of the event in the eyes of the general public.

Tiananmen Massacre: the Background

The Tiananmen Square protests (or the June Fourth Incident) took place in Beijing in 1989. These were students’ demonstrations that triggered the national democratic movement. The government suppressed the protests with rifles and tanks killing hundreds of participants. The incident became known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre (Li, Li, and Mark 2).

The participants were primarily concerned with the new economic policy of the country that caused inflation and told severely on different groups of the population. Besides, the students called for democracy spread, freedom of speech and press, as well as increased accountability on behalf of the government. The latter had refrained from using military tactics to the moment when a million protestants came to Tiananmen Square. This led to the declaration of martial law and mobilization of 300,000 troops to subdue the revolt (Li, Li, and Mark 15).

The event brought about a heated international debate. The actions of the Chinese government were criticized as inhuman. A lot of sanctions and embargoes were imposed to demonstrate the attitude of western countries to the use of force against the civilian population. In its turn, the government presented the event as a revolutionary attempt and continued to arrest the participants and the proponents, expel foreign reporters and journalists, and enhance security measures. The legitimacy of the Communist Party rule was undermined. The echo of these events is still present in the 21st century, which prompts the modern government to continue altering the historical memory of the incident (Li, Li, and Mark 8).

Governmental Attempts to Erase the Memory of the Events

Since the moment the massacre occurred, the government has been working on erasing the memory of the events from the public mind. All the discussions of the protests were strictly forbidden. The patriotic education campaign was launched to enforce the ideology (Wang 96). The authorities banned movies, books, magazines, scientific periodicals, and newspapers that could provoke further civil unrest. The censorship has blocked the sites that posted articles on the topic (Li, Li, and Mark 42).

The official version of the events (that presents them as a revolt that had to be suppressed to guarantee political and economic stability of the country) has been widely promoted in print media. Gradually, the government has fallen silent and stopped commenting on its actions. As a result, many young people are unaware of the protests while older generations are not eager to discuss them. The square was resurfaced to eliminate all blood stains (Li, Li, and Mark 43).

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Another goal the CCP pursued trying to bury the memory of the events was to reduce to the possible minimum the impact the massacre made on the international reputation of the Chinese government. However, it was much more challenging and required more effort than simply introducing strict censorship. A lot of leaders throughout the world stated that the actions of the CCP were inexcusable. The Australian government went as far as to offer Chinese students a four-year asylum in Australia if they would ever want to leave their homeland.

The Chinese authorities delivered a series of speeches, the aim of which was not to appease the country but to preserve the prestigious trade status of the Most Favored Nation in the USA. Besides, many attempts were made to change the perception of the incident by the Chinese who lived abroad. The government promised various incentives to the Chinese intellectuals beyond the country borders (especially to those who were connected with pro-democratic parties) to win back their commitment. However, all the governmental attempts failed as it did not manage to get rid of the new negative image. Since then, the authorities have been generally perceived as ruthless tyrants (Li, Li, and Mark 46).

Resistance to Historical Amnesia

Although public discourse has been limited to the possible minimum, private discussions have been going on despite the danger of repressions. The Tiananmen Mothers organization was founded to promote the idea of humanitarian aid to the victims’ families. The group claimed the right to get a donation from the government as well as from abroad. The agreement of the government would imply its admission of guilt and reassessment of the events. That is why the payment made in 2006 to the mother of one of the participants was labeled as assistance in hardships without any further specifications (Li, Li, and Mark 29).

However, the organization was not satisfied with financial support. It continued to ask the authorities to admit their wrongdoings. The open letter to the government was published in 2015 through the American organization Human Rights in China. It demanded acknowledgment of violence and open discussion of the incident that would reveal all mysteries surrounding the demonstrations because of policies meant to hide the truth (Pascaud par. 5).

The actions aimed at resisting alteration of historical memory are not limited to activities of social organizations. The response to the massacre was comprehensive both in politics and in culture. In 1995, a documentary movie The Gate of Heavenly Peace was released. It contains interviews with the participants of the events. In the same year, Moving the Mountain documentary was produced, which provided a holistic vision of the demonstrations. In 2006, Frontline series showed an episode called The Tank Man investigating the role of the title character in the events. (Despite the enormous popularity of this nameless person, who stopped the tanks a day after the massacre, his identity and fate remain unknown or concealed as he got lost in the crowd). Finally, in 2009, the BBC presented a movie Kate Adie Returns to Tiananmen, in which the reporter travels to China to recollect and investigate the events that took place in 1989 (Li, Li, and Mark 43).

Despite the common condemnation of the governmental actions after the incident, there exist people who want to believe that the Communist Party is not so much to blame as its opponents want to show. In 2014, the group called Voice of Loving Hong Kong organized an unprecedented rally, the aim of which was to call for forgiving and forgetting the actions of the government. The participants claimed that the massacre was the only possible decision as it allowed preserving the national security undermined by the students’ violent actions. Moreover, they even stated that there existed videos proving that no one died in the square – all the deaths happened in the nearby areas and could not be attributed to the actions of the Army (Li, Li, and Mark 55).

Besides, some people suppose that alteration of the collective memory has not taken place as the government has never lied about the protests. Moreover, it may want to admit its guilt. However, even if it is true, this seems impossible until the leaders who took part in all the actions have died.

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Conclusion: Implications of the Case

The case discussed in the present paper is a controversial one and thus can be interpreted in many different ways. It can be supposed that the actions of the government were legitimate and the authorities chose the only possible solution having weighed all the pros and contras. On the other hand, the case can be studied from humanism. The government can be accused of violent actions and the neglect of human lives for the sake of ideology preservation. The only thing that is sure at present is that the leaders are much more concerned about internal affairs rather than foreign relations. I tend to believe that the actions of the government have severely damaged its reputation, which means that the tendency of developing dissatisfaction with governmental actions will remain in the future. The growing tension can shake the ideology and lead to new political movements, protests, and even armed conflicts.

This case is a perfect instance of deliberate alteration of the public memory to meet the requirements of the current political force. The wide response that followed emphasizes the importance of memory in politics and indicates that it cannot be changed without negative consequences. On one hand, the government has achieved the desired ignorance of the younger generation that is unaware of the massacre. However, on the other hand, by doing this, it has destroyed the reputation of the party, which is now irretrievable. The demands of the people and their strivings for democracy are coming back.

Works Cited

Boyer, Pascal, and James V. Wertsch. Memory in Mind and Culture. Cambridge, the United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Print.

Edkins, Jenny. Trauma and the Memory of Politics. Cambridge, the United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.

Lee, Francis LF. “Generational Differences in the Impact of Historical Events: The Tiananmen Square Incident in Contemporary Hong Kong Public Opinion.” International Journal of Public Opinion Research (2011): 141-162. Print.

Li, Peter, Marjorie H. Li, and Steven Mark. Culture and Politics in China: An Anatomy of Tiananmen Square. Piscataway, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2011. Print.

Pascaud, May. China Now Targeting Moms of Tiananmen Victims to Erase Memory of Its Bloody Crackdown. 2015. Web.

Wang, Zheng. Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations. New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. Print.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, February 22). Historical Memory: the Tiananmen Incident in China. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/historical-memory-the-tiananmen-incident-in-china/

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"Historical Memory: the Tiananmen Incident in China." StudyCorgi, 22 Feb. 2021, studycorgi.com/historical-memory-the-tiananmen-incident-in-china/.

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StudyCorgi. "Historical Memory: the Tiananmen Incident in China." February 22, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/historical-memory-the-tiananmen-incident-in-china/.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Historical Memory: the Tiananmen Incident in China." February 22, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/historical-memory-the-tiananmen-incident-in-china/.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Historical Memory: the Tiananmen Incident in China'. 22 February.

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