Last week, at the student symposium Tiananmen in History and Memory, I ended my speech with a quote from Nobel Laureate Liu Xiao Bo: “Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth.” Liu Xiao Bo’s words are not new to my ears, squaring perfectly with the American values that have been inculcated in me since grade school. However, Liu’s statement is a radical concept in China: to this day, the Chinese government represses free discussion about its routine abuses of human rights. In memory of the 1989 Tiananmen Movement, Dr. Rowena He, along with her students from Freshman Seminar 46t and Chinese History 125, organized a symposium. Inspired by Dr. He’s passionate teaching, we integrated personal experience and intellectual inquiry into in our presentations to create a historical panorama.
The 1989 Tiananmen Movement, which is also known as the “June Fourth Movement”, is regarded as the most serious opposition movement mounted against the Chinese government since the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949. In the spring of 1989, millions of citizens filled the streets all over China, peacefully calling for democracy and other liberal political reforms. The nation-wide peaceful efforts of the Chinese people were tragically denied when the People’s Liberation Army fired on its own people. Troops approached the city from all directions. Guns were fired, tanks were rolled, and the square was cleared. Today, we still do not know how many were killed across the capital city of Beijing during the night of June 3-4, 1989 since the Chinese government never allowed independent investigation of the military crackdown.
Twenty-three years later, the Chinese government still does not admit to the atrocity that was committed on the night of June 3rd and early into the morning of June 4th, 1989. In China, Google searches of “Tiananmen” reveal images of the beautiful, clean tourist destination that it is today – posing a stark contrast to the gut-wrenching photos of tanks and bloodied civilians that appear when the word “Tiananmen” is searched outside of China. The Chinese government construes the event as a Western conspiracy in the name of a pro-democracy movement that was meant to weaken China. Discussions about this incident remain taboo in China, and every year on the June 4th anniversary, the government cracks down by arresting activists and conducting heavy surveillance. Those who lost loved ones during the massacre not only have to fight to have their voices heard, but also they struggle to sustain the memories of the lives that were taken.
Although the student presenters at the symposium come from different backgrounds, a desire keep the memory of June 4th alive united us all. Some students shared personal experiences and perspectives, others spoke at length on an important aspect of the movement, and others created artwork or music. The presentations were divided into panels, which were moderated by China specialists from across the Harvard campus and a professor from the University of Pennsylvania. The distinguished faculty emphasized the importance of remembering June 4th, and realizing that the outcome of the event has resounding effects on contemporary China. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Movement, the Chinese government’s decision to restrict freedoms and censor public knowledge paved the way for the intricate web of mechanisms to suppress speech in China today. Although students in China are banned from discussing the topic of Tiananmen, at Harvard, we have the freedom to learn, inquire, argue, and question without limits. Recognizing this privilege, we must take the cause of free expression into our own hands and keep the memory alive.