China’s ‘Black Week-end’

The Last Secret: The Final Documents from the June Fourth Crackdown

edited by Bao Pu
Hong Kong: New Century Press, 362 pp., HK$158.00
Kao Bian/New Century Media and Consulting, Co. Ltd.
Demonstrators and troops during the Tiananmen Square protests, Beijing, June 1989

When Chinese law professor Xu Zhangrun began publishing articles last year criticizing the government’s turn toward a harsher variety of authoritarianism, it seemed inevitable that he would be swiftly silenced. Sure enough, Xu was suspended from his teaching duties at Tsinghua University and placed under investigation. But then, remarkably, dozens of prominent citizens began speaking up. Some signed a petition, others wrote essays and poems in Xu’s support, and one wrote a song:

And, so this spring
Again they are scared.1

To anyone familiar with Chinese politics, the reference was clear: the anniversary of the June 4, 1989, crackdown on the Tiananmen protests. The Communist Party’s use of violence to end those peaceful demonstrations left hundreds dead and remains one of the ugliest events in the history of the People’s Republic.

The thirtieth Tiananmen anniversary is complemented by several other important dates, making 2019 the most sensitive year in a generation. It is also the one hundredth anniversary of the May 4 Movement, a defining moment in Chinese history when traditions were cast aside in favor of a sometimes romantic pursuit of “science” and “democracy.” And it is the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic as well as the twentieth of the crackdown on one of modern China’s most popular religious movements, Falun Gong, in which scores of people were killed in police custody and thousands sent to labor camps. Anyone with any political sense knows that this convergence of dates makes 2019 the year to keep quiet. And yet people continue to speak up. Why?

For authoritarian regimes like China’s, history is power, because their political systems are legitimized through myths. In the case of the People’s Republic, the story goes that earlier efforts to modernize China were failures and that only the Chinese Communist Party was able to bullwhip the country into the future. This is the history that every child learns in textbooks, that museums serve up in exhibitions, and that the media push in countless television dramas, news reports, and popular books. The problem for the government is that historical truth is hard to suppress. The authoritarian state can prevent it from becoming an immediate threat and can eliminate it from the lives of most citizens, but the truth stubbornly endures, inspiring people like Professor Xu and his supporters.

The most recent example of history’s persistence is the publication in Hong Kong of The Last Secret: The Final Documents from the June Fourth Crackdown. It is the record of a meeting of roughly thirty party elders and senior leaders that took place two weeks after the massacre. Officially known as the Fourth Plenum of the Thirteenth Party Congress, it was called by China’s top leader, Deng Xiaoping, to…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.