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date: 22 June 2017

The 1989 Tiananmen Movement and Its Aftermath

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History. Please check back later for the full article.

In spring 1989, millions of Chinese took to the streets calling for reforms. The nationwide Movement, highlighted by a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, ended on June 4 with the People’s Liberation Army firing on unarmed civilians. More than 200,000 soldiers, equipped with tanks and machine guns, participated in the lethal action. Student leaders, intellectuals, workers, and citizens were subsequently purged, imprisoned, or exiled.

Tiananmen remains one of the most sensitive and taboo subjects in China today, banned from both academic and popular realms. Even the actual number of deaths from the military crackdown remains unknown. Every year on the anniversary of June 4, the government intensifies its control, and citizens who commemorate the events are put under various forms of surveillance. The Tiananmen Mothers are prohibited from openly mourning family members who died in the massacre, and exiles are prohibited from returning home, even for a parent’s funeral. Many older supporters of the Movement, leading liberal intellectuals in the 1980s, died in exile.

The post-Tiananmen regime has constructed a narrative that portrays the Tiananmen 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. Because public opinion pertaining to nationalism and democratization is inseparable from a collective memory of the nation’s most immediate past—be it truthful, selective, or manipulated—the memory of Tiananmen has become highly contested. While memory can be manipulated or erased by those in power, the repression of both memory and history are accompanied by political, social, and psychological distortions. Indeed, it is not possible to understand today’s China and its relationship with the world without understanding the spring of 1989.