25 years later: Remembering Tiananmen against the odds

Originally published by Amnesty International UK

It is our duty to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen protests and crackdown, as Amnesty and as ordinary people outside china. We should do it because we can.

The opening phrase of a book, The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi, an Italian Jewish chemist and writer who survived the holocaust, has always stuck with me; it quotes a letter from a Nazi soldier who said that the victims of the holocaust would not get to write the history of the holocaust, because they would not exist. History belongs to the victor.

In a recent poll of students in China, only 1 in 10 was able to identify an image which, for the rest of the world, is iconic. There are few global events with which an image is as entrenched as the Tiananmen protests is with ‘Tank Man’.


Legal scholar and human rights activist Xu Zhiyong (left) was sentenced to four years in jail.

These activists have been prosecuted simply for exercising their rights to assembly and free speech. 


Yet hardly any of those approached could identify the picture, or talk about its context. There are two possible explanations for that collective act of forgetting. The first is that the Chinese government’s attempt to confine the events of 1989 to an Orwellian ‘memory hole’ has been successful. That’s highly likely. The extreme censorship of both physical history books and online accounts related to Tiananmen, shows the deplorable lengths the authorities are prepared to go in their efforts to wipe the bloodshed from memory.  Even our own relatively humble event in London this week, Reclaiming Tiananmen, has been the subject of an apparent sabotage campaign. Thousands of phantom mass-ticket-bookings had been attempted so that the event appeared sold out, presumably by someone supportive of the Chinese government’s repressive aims.

But there is also another explanation about the students’ apparent ignorance of the ‘Tank Man’ image; they knew it, but they were scared to say it. Over recent weeks the unprecedented levels of arrests of anyone attempting to commemorate Tiananmen have been testament to the Chinese authorities’ determination to bury it. You can understand why it’s wise to forget.

Brilliant novels and plays have imagined who this man was, and what he was thinking. We may never know what became of him for sure. His legacy though is one of defiance in the face of hugely disproportionate might.

The refusal to ‘back down’ or ‘go home’ has added resonance today. Amnesty is currently hosting a photographic exhibition of ‘The Other Images of Tiananmen’ which chronicles the 1989 protests throughout April and May, before the brutal crackdown of June. In those images it is clear that the Tiananmen protests had much in common with recent ‘Occupy’-style demonstrations. People can be seen camping, sharing food, giving talks from podiums, and singing. These were ordinary people; students, academics, farmers, factory workers, brothers, sisters, parents. There is no indication of what was to come.

The crackdown when it came, 25 years ago today, was brutal and brief. Unarmed civilians faced tanks and bullets. There was only ever going to be one victor.

But who does history belong to? 25 years on, the authorities may prefer pre-emptive detention to the tank, but the motivation is the same: Fear. Fear of the people. Against all the odds, Tank Man has got Goliath on the run.

Other Articles on the 25th Anniversary of Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen crackdown: Repression intensifies on eve of 25th anniversary China: Detention of artist underlines severe repression ahead of Tiananmen anniversary A child of Tiananmen