Why We Chinese Don’t Talk About June 4th

The news last Tuesday was dominated by news of increased internet censorship in China and remembrances of Tiananmen Square. For all the attention it was getting over here, I wondered if ordinary Chinese noticed. I reached out to a dear friend in China and this was their response:

A couple days ago, I received an email from my dearest friend Anne (who also kindly help editing my English writing here). She asked me to write something about Tiananmen Square. I was very puzzled about why she brought up this topic to begin with, until she mentioned the date, June 4th. It is the date that marks a heart crushing event in Chinese history. How could I possibly let the day pass by, without even thinking about the man facing the tanks, without sensing the cat-and-mouse game going on around me?

Well, you can blame the media censorship that prevents me from becoming a responsible citizen. I’m not alone. No one I came across during the day and after ever mentioned anything. My little world goes on without showing any hint about “this is the day, let’s talk.” Nevertheless, there are plenty of Chinese who remember, who care and stand out. You get to know these their stories, very personal stories, from American and other foreign media. But these stories have been told so many times, by a similar group of people across the different media outlets. You could name them out after reading a couple reports and there were pictures, which make me concerned about whether these activists are put into greater danger by exposing their identities publicly. However, their stories didn’t surprise me, it is to be expected. I don’t know whether American readers feel the same way.

A more refreshing look at the issue is to ask how many of those who used to keep silent speak out. People who fall into this category usually have some kind of personal experience of the event. What about the rest of the population, who haven’t experienced first hand? How do they feel about June 4th? What about the younger generation? Do they even know what happened? I don’t have the answer. What I know is that our textbooks don’t talk about it, our media don’t talk about it, and our parents don’t talk about it, in the name of protecting their children from unwanted troubles. But why we don’t talk about it?

I know it is deeply problematic to use “we” without a proper justification. As an old Chinese goes, “when there is a will, there is a way.” Despite all the barriers, there are still plenty of venues to listen and speak out for us, especially in the digital age. VPN and other proxy services are accessible to many Internet users in technical sense, but very few actually use them. A recent study, conducted by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, finds no more than 3% of Internet users in countries that engage in substantial filtering use circumvention tools. Most of us wouldn’t bother.

The logic is pragmatic. For most of us, it is easier to forget than remember, to keep silent than speak out. Talking about June 4th won’t help make our air fresher, our food safer, our house more affordable. There is a great pressure to keep focus on what is happening at the moment, because we are anxious that our chance would slip away very quickly in chaos. Meanwhile, there are many important things we care about that get covered. June 1st is Children’s day. Chinese parents are busy with making their only child feel even more special for the occasion. June 7th and 8th are the dates for the College Entrance Exam. This exam could define the future for Chinese students and their families. The future is all that matters for Chinese. As long as our future is not taken away from us, we are determined to keep our eyes forward.


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