This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
For some, it began by overhearing an offhand comment. Others found out from someone with firsthand knowledge. Some even had personal connections to those involved.
However they first learned about the June 4, 1989, massacre of students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the young people were motivated to learn more, driven by a sense that the truth had been hidden from them, a Twitter inquiry of Chinese young people collected by Radio Free Asia shows.
Their instincts were not wrong.
China’s Communist Party has done its utmost to stymie any form of public discussion of the incident 34 years ago.
Authorities have worked tirelessly to scrub the affair from history books, online discussions and the media. Every June, police descend on the homes of dissidents, placing them under house arrest and banning them from posting on the topic or speaking to the media.
And with the student protesters now well into their 50s, and children born since the massacre being raised with virtually no knowledge of the event, the passage of time is helping the Communist Party erase memories.
But China’s youth are technologically savvy and have figured out ways to get around the country’s Great Firewall of internet censorship. Many use VPNs, or virtual private networks, to mask their IP addresses, which are illegal in China, but still used widely.
How did you find out?
Ahead of this year’s anniversary, RFA sent out a query on Twitter, asking Chinese netizens born after the year 2000 – essentially those age 22 and younger – to share how they first learned about the Tiananmen massacre.
RFA received nearly 1,400 responses. Twitter is banned in China but can be accessed via VPNs.
Most respondents declined to give their full names, citing a fear of reprisal. Many openly expressed shock at what they discovered, some saying it had changed them forever.
Tanzhang first heard about the crackdown in 2020, when he was in junior high school, while watching a video describing cameras on Bilibili, the popular content sharing platform.
“When they mentioned [the brand] Leica, the video creator added a comment saying, ‘Leica recently filmed an ad that insulted China,’” he said, referring to a commercial in which a photographer appears to be taking photos of the People’s Liberation Army advance on students on the square, only to be confronted by authorities in his hotel.
“The comments were all cryptic, which piqued my curiosity, so I searched for more information. Later, when I revisited the video on Bilibili, I found that the comment had been deleted,” he said.
A high school student who gave his name as Liang said he learned about Twitter and Facebook in October 2021 while browsing Douyin, a Chinese TikTok-style video platform. He got a VPN account and started following a few accounts of nationalistic Chinese officials known as “wolf warriors.”
“I saw someone mentioning the Tiananmen Square massacre in the comments under a tweet by [Foreign Ministry spokesperson] Hua Chunying, so I searched for it on Google and was deeply shocked,” he said.
Several students said instructors put themselves at risk by teaching about the crackdown in class or that they managed to access censored educational materials during their studies.
“In a university elective course many years ago, the teacher secretly played a video [about the massacre] for us with the door closed, without saying a word,” said a student who gave their name as “Y.” “Nowadays it’s impossible that such a thing could happen.”
Another respondent who gave his name as Guan Fu said that while in eighth grade, his modern Chinese history teacher “dedicated a whole class to explain everything about the Tiananmen Square incident.”
“That day, the beliefs that had been instilled in me since childhood collapsed,” he said. “I went back home and asked my elders about it. It turns out they all knew, but in the face of that bloody purge at the time, they chose silence.”
A respondent who identified themselves as “Student A” said a teacher had mentioned that university students in the square had been “suppressed by the government,” and that the reference was enough to make them want to dig further.
‘Tank Man’ image
At an international school in China, teachers sealed off sections of history textbooks deemed politically sensitive before handing them back to the class for studies, said a respondent who gave their name as “Classmate S.”
“Driven by curiosity, my classmates and I cautiously tore open the seals and saw a picture in the content about China – a man blocking a tank,” he said, referring to the iconic image of an unarmed protester standing in the way of a tank on a major boulevard.
The student said that he and his classmates were taken to the principal’s office and made to write self-criticisms.
“I don’t understand why I am being punished for seeking the truth about history,” he said. “Why does our government conceal the facts? I am truly disappointed in my government and deeply disgusted by their hypocrisy.”
Some described personal connections to the crackdown that they said had prompted them to investigate.
Another respondent told RFA that a classmate “told me that his father and grandfather were soldiers and had shot Beijing students.”
“He spoke with great pride,” the student said. “I went home on the weekend and searched the internet by bypassing the Great Firewall.”
A student named Lin said he was watching a film called “The Curse of the Golden Flower” about a failed rebellion against the Chinese empire with his parents in 2006 when he first heard of the incident.
“During the ending, after Prince Jie’s rebellion fails and the eunuchs and maids in the palace are cleaning the bloodstains from the rebels while arranging chrysanthemums,” he said. “My mom then said, ‘Isn’t this just like 64?’” – a common, cryptic way to refer to June 4.
“My dad nervously signaled my mom to stop,” he said. “I had never seen such expressions on my parents’ faces, so I went online to find answers.”