Popular views of state violence in China: The tiananmen incident

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, Kate Merkel-Hess

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Scopus citations


Over the last twenty years, the story of what happened in China in 1989 has been reduced to an increasingly simple set of events: students stood off against soldiers in Beijing in order to champion democratizing reforms, and the international media watched helplessly on June 4 as hundreds were slaughtered in Tiananmen Square. This narrative gets some key details wrong: for example, it is likely that very few people died right in Tiananmen Square itself in early June (it is possible that none did, and in any case, the main killing fields were on nearby streets, not on the plaza). In addition, the conventional version of the story is often backed up by misleading bits of information, such as references to the man who stood before a line of tanks on June 5 (in the most iconic photograph from the time) being a student (he was probably a worker) or statements that imply that the most commonly waved banners referred to democracy (they often simply had the names of universities on them, and if they had political slogans, these were likely to refer to anger over corruption). More generally, this narrative, while much closer to the truth than the "Big Lie" promoted by the Chinese government (based on the delusional notion that there were no innocent victims of a massacre, just some thugs and "counterrevolutionary" rioters who faced off against soldiers who showed great restraint), diminishes the complexity of protestors' demands and the scope of the protests and underplays the significance of patriotism as a motivating force in the protests. Moreover, when it comes to how the protests are memorialized and discussed in China, most foreigners are under the impression that the country has experienced a forced amnesia, a belief that ignores the widespread, complex-if often sub rosa-debates and discussions of "6/4" (liusi), the most common term there for the 1989 conflict. In this chapter, we explore how differing memories of the events of 1989 have shaped expectations for reconciliation (or not) inside and outside China. This consideration leads us to the conclusion that, unlike some of the other instances of state violence considered in this volume, calls for "reconciliation" regarding the events of 1989 are often not focused solely on the event itself but instead have been incorporated into a broader Internet culture in China that pits citizen efforts to openly discuss historical and contemporary events against the government's goal of maintaining stability through the suppression of potentially inflammatory speech-and, more broadly, promulgating information about history that legitimates the Communist Party's position and limiting open reassessment of troubling periods in this organization's post-1949 history. 1 In this way, while 1989 remains a compelling shorthand (if a fading one) for China's human rights abuses abroad, in the People's Republic of China (PRC) itself the events of 1989 have been subsumed into a debate in emerging media on who controls the memory and memorializing of the country's past.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationState Violence in East Asia
PublisherUniversity Press of Kentucky
Number of pages24
ISBN (Electronic)9780813136806
ISBN (Print)9780813136790
StatePublished - 2013

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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