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On June 4, 1989, thousands of Chinese people peacefully protested in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, demanding democratic reforms. The uprising was brutally suppressed. Since then, the Chinese government has effectively obliterated the events of 30 years ago. It has censored mention of the failed democracy and quickly punished those who dare to remember what happened. A few young people, born after 1989, learned about what happened and tried to commemorate it. “He tried to commemorate erased history. China detained him, then erased that too.”
As I read this account in the Los Angeles Times, I could not help but think of the current debate in our country about “critical race theory,” which at root is an effort to suppress honest discussion about racism and its toxic and persistent legacy. Red-state governors like Texas’ Gregg Abbott, want “patriotic education.” Tennessee passed the most extreme legislation, banning the teaching of racism, sexism, or bias.
BEIJING — He stood in Tiananmen Square, wearing sneakers, track pants and a black T-shirt printed with the date of a massacre.
It was June 4, 2019, the 30th anniversary of the killing of hundreds of pro-democracy protesters in Beijing. Dong Zehua, then 28, hadn’t even been born when tanks clattered over the square and the world watched. The events on that bloody day in 1989 weren’t taught in school or ever mentioned in Chinese media. But Dong knew what had happened.
Tech-savvy and good at English, Dong had mastered circumventing the Great Firewall. He had learned about the anti-government protests and deaths through foreign websites banned in China. As the anniversary approached, he booked a train ticket and traveled to Beijing, keeping the T-shirt hidden until he was on the square.
Dong was a jiulinghou, as those born after 1990 are called in China. They are a nationalistic generation raised on “patriotic education” and state propaganda in a prosperous, increasingly strong China. Many have little knowledge of the traumas their parents endured or the ongoing suppression of Chinese citizens around them.
But there are outliers among them. A handful of Chinese youth like Dong have tried to expose and preserve China’s true history and honor those erased from the official story. They do so despite censorship, imprisonment and growing pressure from peers who are encouraged to report on anyone who criticizes the state.
Counter-narratives have been crushed by a Communist Party determined to carefully choreograph its 100th anniversary in July. That means deleting official wrongs, promoting a whitewashed version of party history, punishing those who deviate — and in recent days, expunging the records of that punishment as well.
“What they’re doing is to control every Chinese person’s thinking and erase every person’s history,” Dong said. “They want to write history themselves.”
To Dong’s surprise, two other young people were in the square the morning he arrived: Yuan Shuai, 24, a recent college graduate from Inner Mongolia working at an advertising company in Beijing, and Gao Tianqi, 21, a Beijinger attending university abroad who’d come back for the summer. Gao carried a yellow umbrella — a symbol of Hong Kong’s youth-led democracy movement — with the number “30” written on it in black marker.
They hatched a plan to interview foreigners on the square and post a video of their comments online.
“It was a normal, simple sense of justice in our hearts, thinking: I want to do this, because someone should,” said Dong. “Someone should commemorate. This shouldn’t be forgotten.”
The three were arrested within hours. Yuan and Dong were convicted of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” and sentenced, respectively, to six and seven months in jail. Gao was let go after 38 days of detention without trial.
Dong was quiet for several months after his release. But on June 4, 2020, he emailed The Times about his experience and provided a link to a judgment issued by the Beijing Dongcheng People’s Court. The Times verified the judgment, which was documented in a public archive of court rulings kept by the Supreme People’s Court online.
Last month, he contacted The Times again: The record of his arrest had vanished.
“In their eyes, it’s as if our detention never happened. It’s as if they never did it to us,” Dong said. “They deleted it … as if they can just delete all Chinese people’s memories…. With one stroke of the arm they can cover the sky.”