ALMOST three decades ago, hundreds if not thousands of Chinese students were gunned down in Beijing by government soldiers for holding peaceful pro-democracy protests which had lasted many weeks.
Remembering the iconic image of a man standing in front of tanks rolling into Tiananmen Square – a place meaning “gate of heavenly peace” – Chinese netizens are marking the 29th anniversary of the killings with the hashtag #Tankman2018.
According to the Guardian, the Tank Man social media campaign was started by Chinese artist Badiucao. “Tank Man is very relevant today and people should see it. Society has not changed much since the massacre for the oppression has never stopped,” he was quoted as saying.
— grace pettigrew (@broomstick33) June 4, 2018
Chinese authorities each year censor online content relating to the crackdown – a human rights issue which remains a point of contention with many Western countries.
— 周锋锁 Fengsuo Zhou (@ZhouFengSuo) June 3, 2018
Badiucao said the man represents “something lost in China’s young generation now — the idealism, passion, sense of responsibility, and confidence that an individual can make a change.”
Chinese netizens in the United States, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere have posted pictures with the hashtag #Tankman2018.
— 紐西蘭六四紀念 (@cn64nz) June 3, 2018
“We should all aspire and do what this infamous mystery man did in the face of overwhelming odds: Stand up and defy against even the greatest of odds, not with violence, but with a pacifistic nature in mind,” tweeted one netizen.
“To ensure a better future for us all. We need heroes.”
In what is also known euphemistically as the June Fourth Incident, People’s Liberation Army troops with tanks and automatic rifles killed student protestors en masse, after protests which had lasted more than six weeks calling for democracy and greater freedom of speech.
The protests are branded a “counter-revolutionary rebellion” by Chinese authorities and many on the mainland remain unaware of the crackdown, with discussion banned from books, textbooks, movies and censored on social networks.
A British diplomatic cable declassified in 2017, written just a day after the killings, alleged that more than 10,000 people were killed by Chinese troops on June 4, 1989. The document described female students being bayoneted as they begged for their lives and human entrails “hosed down drains” after the slaughter.
— lebao wu (@MerlotN) June 4, 2018
On Sunday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called upon China to publicly acknowledge the “tragic loss of innocent lives” on June 4, 1989.
“As Liu Xiaobo wrote in his 2010 Nobel Peace Prize speech, delivered in absentia, ‘the ghosts of June 4th have not yet been laid to rest’,” Pompeo said, referring to the Chinese dissident who died last year while still in custody.
“We join others in the international community in urging the Chinese government to make a full public accounting of those killed, detained or missing,” he said.
However, Hu Xijin, editor of nationalistic tabloid the Global Times, called Pompeo’s statement a “meaningless stunt” that “represents a wish of the Western world to meddle in China’ political process”.
In Taiwan, the democratic and self-ruled island China claims as its own, former president Ma Ying-jeou said in a statement it was important to face up to history to help heal the families’ wounds. “Only by doing this can the Chinese communists be seen by the world as a real great power,” wrote Ma, under whose administration ties with China dramatically improved.
In an open letter to Xi dated “the eve of 2018 June 4th”, the Tiananmen Mothers, an association of parents who lost children in the violence, said: “each year when we would commemorate our loved ones, we are all monitored, put under surveillance, or forced to travel.”
“No one from the successive governments over the past 29 years has ever asked after us, and not one word of apology has been spoken from anyone, as if the massacre that shocked the world never happened,” said the letter, which was released on Thursday by the non-profit Human Rights in China.
“The 1989 June Fourth bloody massacre is a crime the state committed against the people. Therefore, it is necessary to re-evaluate the June Fourth massacre,” the letter said, calling for “truth, compensation, and accountability” from the government.
Tens of thousands of people are expected to gather later in the day in Hong Kong to mark the anniversary, the only place in China where such large-scale public commemorations happen.
Additional reporting from Reuters and AFP.