China continues to deny Tiananmen, but we won’t let the world forget

On the 30th anniversary of the massacre, commemorations to those who were killed will show the Chinese government we will not be silenced. 

Tiananmen Square on 2 June 1989
Tiananmen Square on 2 June 1989, two days before the massacre.  Photograph: Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images. 

He was just a kid, but he cried like an old man in despair.” Liane was trying hard to steady her emotions when she described to me how she had attempted to hold back a young boy whose unarmed brother had been shot by soldiers during the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

Liane was a student from Hong Kong when the 1989 Tiananmen movement erupted and she went to Beijing to support the demonstrations. On the night of 3 June, when 200,000 soldiers equipped with tanks and AK-47s were deployed against unarmed civilians, she was outside the Museum of the Chinese Revolution on the north-east corner of Tiananmen Square. She fainted after she failed to stop the young boy from dashing toward the soldiers, and was carried away covered with blood.

“When I regained consciousness, people tried to put me into an ambulance,” Liane recalled. “I told them that I did not need one. A second ambulance came, and again I struggled not to get in.” At that point, a middle-aged female doctor got out of the ambulance, held Liane’s hands and told her: “Child, we need you to return to Hong Kong. We need you to leave alive to tell the world what our government did to us tonight.” Because of the freedom Hong Kong citizens enjoyed before the handover of 1997, citizens of Beijing hoped that Liane would bear witness for them. The fear that the blood would be shed in vain was widely shared by Chinese people that night. One Chinese man asked a Canadian reporter on the street: “Does the world know what happened here?”

The despair felt by Chinese people at the time was not misconceived. Although the world’s attention fell on Beijing, the Tiananmen movement had been national in scope, with millions of participants in cities across China. So, immediately after the crackdown the government carried out mass arrests across the nation.

Even as the massacre was taking place Wu Xiaoyong, the deputy director of Radio Beijing, broadcast a statement internationally, asking the world to remember “the most tragic event [that] happened in the Chinese capital, Beijing”. Wu was placed under house arrest after the crackdown. Two China Central Television (CCTV) news anchors appeared on camera dressed in black wearing sad facial expressions as they read the official texts about the army’s successful crackdown on the “counter-revolutionary riot”. Both were removed from their positions.

Propaganda officers of the People’s Liberation Army took control of all major media in Beijing. Many editors attempted to protect their reporters who were on the ground and saw what was happening (and tried to report what was happening), but the editors themselves were sacked so that the purge could proceed smoothly. Both the editor-in-chief and the director of the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist party (CCP), were dismissed from their posts because of their sympathetic attitudes toward the students.

‘Over the past 30 years, the Beijing regime activated the state machinery to erase or distort any memory of 3 and 4 June.’  Photograph: How Hwee Young/EPA. 

The general secretary of the CCP at the time, Zhao Ziyang, who refused to order the crackdown, was dismissed and lived under house arrest until his death in 2005. General Xu Qinxian, commander of the 38th army of the People’s Liberation Army, who refused to participate in the crackdown, was court-martialled, imprisoned for five years, and expelled from the CCP. These were just some of the immediate consequences.

Over the past 30 years, the Beijing regime activated the state machinery to erase or distort any memory of 3 and 4 June. The post-Tiananmen leadership went on to construct an official account that portrayed the movement as a western conspiracy to weaken and divide China, hence justifying its military crackdown as necessary for stability and prosperity, and paving the way for China’s rise. In 2011, China Daily, an official English-language newspaper in Beijing, headlined a story “Tiananmen massacre a myth”, claiming that “Tiananmen remains the classic example of the shallowness and bias in most western media reporting, and of governmental black information operations seeking to control those media. China is too important to be a victim of this nonsense.”

‘Tank Man’ blocks tanks leaving Tiananmen Square the day after the massacre
‘Tank Man’ blocks tanks leaving Tiananmen Square the day after the massacre.  Photograph: Jeff Widener/AP. 

Survivors and families of the victims have persisted, however, in disputing these narratives. Among them was Fang Zheng, a college senior who was run over by a tank and lost both legs during the crackdown. I invited Fang and the photographer Jeff Widener, who took the iconic Tank Man photo, to a conference I organised at Harvard in 2014, commemorating the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen. Sitting in his wheelchair, Fang told the packed auditorium that he used to hate the Tank Man photo as the authorities used it to press him to bear false witness: “How come he was not crushed but you were? It must be because you were a rioter.” The authorities pressured Fang to say that he was run over by a car; when he refused, he was denied his degree and his graduation certificate.

Because the heart-wrenching testimonies of the Tiananmen mothers contradict the official version of what happened they had to be rendered invisible and silent. The mothers are still not allowed to openly mourn their children; their continuing demand for an independent investigation for truth and justice is regularly denied. In a heartbreaking recent interview, the mother of Liu Hongtao, a student killed during the massacre, asked forgiveness from her son because his mother and father still cannot openly mourn him.


Despite Beijing’s pressure on the Hong Kong press, journalists who covered the Tiananmen movement in Beijing in 1989 recently produced a programme of interviews collectively titled: “I am a journalist: My June 4 story”. It is their contribution to keeping the collective memory alive. Foreign journalists who reported from Beijing in 1989 were also profoundly impacted by their experience. At the Harvard conference, participating western journalists called themselves the “Class of 89”.

The legacy of Tiananmen is not something that belongs to China or to the Chinese people alone. It belongs to the world. Human beings’ longing for freedom and the pursuit of truth and justice are without borders. The 4 June military crackdown violated the core of our shared humanity.

This is why each year for three decades commemoration activities have been organised in major cities around the world. In Hong Kong, hundreds of thousands have gathered in Victoria Park each 4 June to hold a candlelight vigil to remember those young lives that were violently cut short. This year Liane will be speaking at the vigil, keeping the commitment she made to that ambulance doctor and other citizens on the streets of Beijing 30 years ago. The image of the endless sea of candles has become as iconic as the Tank Man, reminding us that Tiananmen is not just about repression, but also about hope.

Rowena Xiaoqing He is author of Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China. 

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