“The truth is so dangerous,” Tania Branigan said.
Branigan, foreign leader writer for the Guardian and its former China correspondent, was speaking about the endemic self-censorship prevalent in China, where even parents who were involved in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests won’t tell their own children about their experiences.
The silence, the lack of a reckoning around the events of 1989 has become even more absolute with the repackaging of communist party rule, added Jeff Wasserstrom, a professor of history at the University of California, who specialises in China.
The student-led protests bloomed after the death of pro-reform communist leader Hu Yaobang in April 1989. The officially-sanctioned mourning period provided an opening for people to express their anxieties about the direction of the country, Wasserstrom said. Officials reacted with a mixture of conciliatory and hardline tactics that revealed a split with the communist party leadership. Ultimately, the hardliners won out, with the country’s paramount leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping, and his allies resolving to use force to suppress the movement. Up to 300,000 troops mobilised under a martial law order implemented on 20 May.
On 4 June, the troops were ordered into central Beijing, killing both demonstrators and bystanders in the process. Estimates of the death toll vary from several hundred to thousands.