The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, which culminated in what is variously called the “June Fourth Incident,” or the “Tiananmen Square Massacre,” remain some of the most politically-sensitive events in modern Chinese history. That makes an open letter on the subject by a group of Chinese students, initially circulated through email and on social media, extremely bold:
We are a group of Chinese students born in the 1980s and 1990s and now studying abroad. Twenty-six years ago on June 4th, young students, in life’s prime with innocent love for their country just as we are today, died under the gun of the People’s Liberation Army in Beijing’s streets. This part of history has since been so carefully edited and shielded away that many of us today know very little about it. Currently outside China, we have been able to access photos, videos and news, and listen to the accounts of survivors, unfettered. We feel the aftershocks of this tragedy across the span of a quarter century. The more we know, the more we feel we have a grave responsibility on our shoulders. We are writing you this open letter, fellow college students inside China, to share the truth with you and to expose crimes that have been perpetrated up to this day in connection with the Tian’anmen Massacre in 1989.
Even in China, people find ways to circumvent the country’s famous Great Firewall that tries to block access to some external sites with material deemed politically dangerous. Interestingly, an editorial in the Chinese-government tabloid, the Global Times, written in response to the students’ publication, recognizes that fact:
The open letter claimed that the post-1980s and post-1990s generations in the mainland have been fooled and they couldn’t get to know the “truth” of the 1989 Tiananmen incident until they moved abroad to study, where they can get unlimited access to the Internet. However, it’s well-known that Internet censorship cannot prevent people acquiring sensitive information from overseas websites.
Had the editorial left it at that, it would have made a good point in response to the students’ arguments. But instead, it concluded:
Chinese society has reached a consensus on not debating the 1989 incident. Students born in the 1980s and 1990s have become the new targets of overseas hostile forces. When China is moving forward, some are trying to drag up history in an attempt to tear apart society. It’s a meaningless attempt and is unlikely to be realized.
There, the editorialist moves back into standard propaganda mode: “everyone” agrees not to talk about what happened in Tiananmen Square 26 years ago, so anyone who does is clearly a dupe of “hostile forces.” Perhaps realizing that these remarks only served to fan the flames of domestic debate yet further, the Chinese authorities later took down the original editorial, although the English translation is still available. But by then, it was too late: the heavy-handed attempt to stifle debate had done the exact opposite. As the letter’s lead signatory, Gu Yi, told the Guardian:
The Global Times attacking our letter was the best advertisement.
That’s a useful reminder that no matter how rich or powerful you are, in the age of the internet, no one is proof against the Streisand Effect.