Each year around the anniversary of 4 June 1989, the Beijing massacre, words vanish from the Chinese internet. A comprehensive list of blocked words is published by China Digital Times, which keeps an extensive database. Digital censorship has pushed Chinese citizens to create an irreverent, ingenious and hilarious counter-language of puns, gifs, memes, nicknames and more, to fill in the spaces otherwise left blank. I turned to those missing words to record the events of 1989 and the aftermath.
1. The demonstrations, which daily brought up to a million people to Tiananmen Square, began when Beijing students tried to mourn the sudden death of Hu Yaobang, a reformist leader who had been removed from office.
2. The government accused the mourners of inciting rebellion, and the student movement was born. In the wake of 40 years of political turmoil that claimed the lives of at least 60 million people, the public square became not just ground zero for a democracy movement, but a space to remember the past, debate the present, and imagine the future.
3. The world was watching. When the government turned away from dialogue, 3,000 students began a hunger strike that lasted 10 days.
4. On 19 May, general secretary Zhao Ziyang visited the students in the middle of the night. He told them, “I am sorry”. The next day, the government imposed martial law and mobilised troops, and Zhao was placed under house arrest where he would remain until his death in 2005. Zhao’s children were denied permission to bury their father’s ashes until 2015.
5. On the night of 3 June and the early hours of 4 June, people took to the streets to stop the tanks from reaching the student demonstrators. Fighting took place on streets and intersections – Muxidi, Gongzhufen, Chang’an Avenue – and the People’s Liberation Army opened fire with lead bullets. The number of dead, including those crushed by tanks, remains unknown. The unprecedented and peaceful civil movement was transformed into the Beijing massacre, or what the government calls the Tiananmen Incident.
6. On the morning of 4 June 1989, a line of tanks was stopped, momentarily, by a person whose identity has never been discovered, and whose fate remains unknown.
7. On each anniversary, 27, 26, 25, 24, 23, and so on, numbers of every permutation (6/4, 64, squareof8, 31May, 89 etc and even baijiu, a liquor that sounds like 89) are suppressed. The name of the former premier, Li Peng, is temporarily banned, alongside the names of victims, student leaders, workers and activists, and certain foreign media sites. Even “sensitive word” and “internet block” are disallowed. So many pages are inaccessible that 4 June is jokingly referred to by Chinese citizens as Internet Maintenance Day.
8. Every June, parents and/or spouses of the victims are placed under house arrest or removed from their homes, and forbidden from public mourning. For 27 years, Ding Zilin has been trying to grieve for her son, Jiang Jielian, who was shot by the army. She founded a group, the Tiananmen Mothers, searching for “those who shared the same fate”, and this group of elderly bereaved are known as the mothers of the motherland. Their demand was simple: the right to mourn peacefully and in public.
9. To remember, citizens post candles to commemorate the dead, they call for a silent vigil to pay respect to that day and honour the memory of that year. They ask citizens to wear black and take a walk. They call the massacre in Beijing a wound in history and remind one another to never forget these weeks that were the end of spring and the beginning of summer, a night when the empire besieged the city, and the end of an era.
10. The poet Bei Dao wrote: “Life’s only a promise / Don’t grieve for it / We knocked down midnight’s door / alone like a match polished into light.” Today, 27 years later, even the words yesterday and tomorrow are so politically charged, they disappear.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien was shortlisted for the Baileys prize.
Source: The Guardian