History of Tiananmen crackdown being forgotten: U.S. Sinologist

06/03/2019 11:21 AM
To activate the text-to-speech service, please first agree to the privacy policy below.
American Sinologist Perry Link
American Sinologist Perry Link

By CNA reporter Chang Shu-ling and staff writer Elizabeth Hsu

A 29-year-old prophecy that the history of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing on June 4, 1989 would be forgotten is coming true, American Sinologist Perry Link said ahead of the 30th anniversary of the incident that left hundreds if not thousands dead.

Link helped Fang Lizhi (方勵之), a distinguished astrophysicist whose liberal ideas inspired the pro-democracy student demonstrations of late 1986 and early 1987 in China, take refuge at the American Embassy in Beijing after the military cracked down on student protesters with rifles and tanks at the Square in 1989.

During his 13-months with wife Li Shuxian (李淑嫻) in the hideout, Fang wrote an essay, which Link was asked by The New York Review of Books to translate into English.

In an interview with CNA in Taipei on May 16, Link recalls being stunned by Fang's thinking in the essay, titled "The Chinese Amnesia (中共的遺忘術)."

In the essay, Fang wrote that the "technique of forgetting history" has been an important tool of Chinese Communist rule.

"I have lived under the Chinese Communist regime for four decades, and have had many opportunities to observe this technique at work.

"Its aim is to force the whole of society to forget its history, and especially the true history of the Chinese Communist party itself," Fang wrote in the Link-translated essay, published in the Sept. 27, 1990 issue of The New York Review of Books.

To make sure history stays forgotten, the Chinese policy "requires that any detail of history that is not in the interests of the Chinese Communists cannot be expressed in any speech, book, document, or other medium," Fang wrote.

Whitewashing history

Link remembers wondering when he read and translated the article that "there have been few disasters around the world as widely covered by news media as the June 4 incident. The whole world knew about it, so how is it possible it could be forgotten?"

Now he realizes that Fang, a former vice president of the University of Science and Technology of China, actually knew the Communists well after living through the bloody Anti-Rightist purge in 1957 and the Democracy Wall movement in 1979, the 74-year-old Link said.

Accused of being one of the leading figures behind the "counter-revolutionary riot" and named as one of Beijing's "wanted" persons involved in the 1989 Tiananmen protest, Fang and his wife remained in the embassy until June 1990.

They were then allowed to leave China following negotiations between Beijing and Washington and the support of a Japanese loan deal.

Fang subsequently conducted research at universities in Great Britain and the U.S., and his last position before he died in Tucson in April 2012 at the age of 76 was in the physics department of the University of Arizona.

Refuse to forget

Link, now a visiting professor at Heidelberg University in Germany and known both as an innovative scholar of modern Chinese literature and as an authority on contemporary Chinese politics, was in Taipei from May 18 to 20 for a series of conferences marking the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Incident.

"Attending such events is an action of refusing to forget," Link told CNA.

The Chinese Communists themselves, however, have not forgotten the June 4 massacre, Link said. Otherwise, they would not deploy a large contingent of plain-clothed security officers around Tiananmen Square on the eve of the incident's anniversary every year.

Link argued that Beijing's efforts to wash clean the historical memories of its people have had repercussions.

He recalled some Chinese students at the University of California Riverside would often ask him "odd questions" that he felt reflected their lack of general knowledge.

One of them was: "In the June 4 incident, was it common people who killed military troops or the other way around?"

Link thought it regrettable that Chinese students did not learn the truth behind the June 4 massacre at school and would not hear about it at home because family members did not talk about it to protect them, but he still believes that as long as young people have access to the truth, they can still learn the truth.

Unfortunately, Link said, the truth may be increasingly difficult to come by.


In 1996 Link was blacklisted and deported at an airport in China and has been denied entry since.

That pressure has led to self-censorship, which Link described as the Achilles' heel of many scholars of China, and the younger the scholars are, the more heavily they censor themselves, he said.

He recalls an American student learning Chinese at Princeton University who gave up a summer internship at the nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch in Washington D.C. to avoid the same fate as her teacher, Link, after learning he had be been blacklisted by China.

"Such fear is too much," he said.

Some mature Sinologists have figured out how to cleverly avoid sensitive phrases, for example, never using the term "Taiwan independence" when speaking of Taiwan or never using the word "massacre" when discussing the Tiananmen Square Incident.

But in doing this, Link said, they convey the wrong message to the public about the Chinese regime.

Shaky trust in Communist regime

Although the Chinese Communist Party looks powerful and controls techniques of forgetting history while running a massive stability system aimed at keeping the nation and social order from evolving into spontaneous social movements, it is also hollow, Link contended.

He recalled an encounter in 2003 with two ranking officials from Tsinghua University in Beijing who were visiting the United States under an academic exchange program.

When one of them went to the bathroom, the other turned to Link and asked if he had the book, "The Tiananmen Papers (中國六四真相)," which detailed Beijing's response to the 1989 democracy protests, Link said.

Expressing his desire to read the book, the official asked Link to hide it in an envelope so that his colleague would not know what was going on.

This shows that even those in leadership positions in the Chinese Communist regime are not totally convinced of their official ideologies and have little trust in each other.

"This is the regime's Achilles' heel," Link said, arguing that China's higher spending on its stability system than on its military each year proves the frailty of the Communist regime.

In recent years Beijing initiated the Confidence Doctrine, calling for Communist Party members, government officials and the Chinese people to be "confident in our chosen path, confident in our political system, and confident in our guiding theories."

"Any government that has to step forward to say 'I have confidence' shows that it has no confidence in itself," Link said.


    We value your privacy.
    Focus Taiwan (CNA) uses tracking technologies to provide better reading experiences, but it also respects readers' privacy. Click here to find out more about Focus Taiwan's privacy policy. When you close this window, it means you agree with this policy.