When the anniversary of 1989’s June 4 Massacre arrives later this week, it will provide its annual reminder of a basic fact about contemporary China: the country’s leaders remain determined to control the flow of information about sensitive subjects. Each year, American and European newspapers republish the iconic “tank man” image and run stories that tell of Chinese soldiers killing large numbers of people in central Beijing. Each year, Hong Kong gatherings honor the memory of the students, workers, and bystanders slain near Tiananmen Square. And each year, on the mainland, the anniversary is dutifully ignored. Newspapers treat June 4 as an ordinary day. The tank man does not appear on the web or on television screens. There are no public commemorations—and sometimes plans even for small-scale, private ceremonies trigger arrests.
This contrast—particularly stark when major anniversaries such as the twenty-fifth, two years ago, arrive—is important, for reasons that Louisa Lim made abundantly clear in her powerful 2014 book The People’s Republic of Amnesia. But this should not lead us to assume that blocking and enforced amnesia are Beijing’s only approaches to hot-button topics. As recent events have shown, there is more to the story of control than efforts to impose forgetfulness. The state and those supporting it also turn to strategies designed to steer discussion of touchy subject into particular channels and to distraction attention away from taboo topics.
Indeed, a far more nuanced effort to shape historical memory than is seen each June 4 was on display with the arrival on May 16 of the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution. We did not see a repetition of the June 4 pattern; mainland media mentioned the date’s relevance, albeit waiting until late in the day to do so and referring to what had happened five decades before in a very particular way. The date got more muted attention inside of China than in the West, but it was not shrouded in complete silence, and this matters, since continual references to 1989 and the Cultural Revolution both being “taboo topics” can mislead those with only a casual interest in China to assume that the subjects are treated in the same way.
What the authorities try to do with the Cultural Revolution is not to blot out all memory of the event, which is often referred to in official sources as “ten years of chaos,” but rather to discourage close scrutiny of what happened and who was to blame. There is neither a ban on mentioning any specific date related to the Cultural Revolution nor an attempt to sweep the Chinese web clean of a particular iconic image. And while novelists know better than to bring the protests at Tiananmen Square or the June 4 massacre into books they hope to see published on the mainland, there are works of fiction readily available in Beijing bookstores that discuss issues like the Red Guard persecution of intellectuals. The Three Body Problem, a bestselling work of science fiction, is one high-profile example.
The authorities make it clear, though, that there are no-go zones, especially when it comes to spreading blame for the persecutions and violence of the time. The Party likes historical episodes to resemble black-and-white struggles between heroes and villains, with the latter role played in this case by the Gang of Four and to a certain extent an aged and misled Mao Zedong. A full accounting of the Cultural Revolution would be one in which blame for many incidents would need to be apportioned to individuals who were victims and then later perpetrators, or perpetrators and then later victims, as well as to some people who now hold positions of power or are related to those who do. As a result, moving toward a full reckoning with the past is verboten; partial memory rather than amnesia remains the order of the day. ...