Only 15 out of a 100 students at the University of Beijing can identify the iconic ‘tank man’ photo from the Tiananmen Square uprising – and most of them think it shows an escaped psychiatric patient
Vox’s Max Fisher commemorates the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre by inviting its reader to imagine a situation where only 15 out of a 100 Harvard University students could identify a photo of the 9/11 attacks. The Communist Party’s efforts to cover up the truth about the massacre have been so comprehensive that an analogous situation has arisen in China.
A Beijing based NPR reporter conducted an informal survey of students at Beijing University because
in 1989, were absolutely central to the student movement and protests. These students today have a historical connection to the 1989 movement, and are some of the smartest and Internet-savviest young people in China. They also have unusually easy access to foreign media and are disproportionately likely to have traveled abroad. If any young people in China would know about Tiananmen, surely it would be them.
As it turned just 15 of the 100 students recognised the ‘tank man‘ photo. It transpires this photo is famous around the world but not in the city it was taken in.
And recognising the photo did not mean these students understood it:
Even Chinese citizens who move to the United States as students and spend years exposed to American media and education will often tell me that the Tiananmen massacre never happened or was a minor disturbance necessarily and near-bloodlessly quelled by civic-minded troops. The line on the “tank man” photo is typically that he was an escaped mental patient who wandered too close to some troops and was harmlessly carried back to his hospital bed. Even otherwise liberal-minded Chinese who have access to all the information will, of their own accord, actively participate in holding up the government’s version of events.
For anyone hoping for democratic change in China this is a deeply depressing result. Fisher notes that:
In the 1980s, Chinese students were so politically involved that they led one of the most important popular movements of the late 20th century. Today, due in large part to a government campaign that has included a brutally state-enforced national amnesia, Chinese students are so apolitical, so focused on jobs and wealth, that they’re not even aware of their own powerful history.