The day after June 4, 1989, when the Chinese military mowed down civilian protesters in a bloody mist of gunfire, a line of tanks approached Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The thousands of students that had been gathered there, protesting for democratic reforms of the communist system, were now either dead, detained, dispersed or hospitalized.
One man who remained stood in the path of the oncoming tanks, forcing the entire line to halt. Standing with his feet together and holding a piece of clothing in his hand like a flag, he waved at the lead tank, his arm moving in aggressive, broad arcs -- a signal for the tanks to turn around and leave. The lead tank turned slightly to move around him, but he sidestepped into its path.
The game of chicken continued with the man climbing atop the tank, appearing to search for an entrance. The soldiers remained inside, only popping their helmeted heads out of its hatches once the man was back down on the street. Eventually, several people in civilian garb, supposedly fellow protesters but possibly plainclothes police, approached the man and whisked him away.
More than two decades since, no one has heard from the unknown protester, known only as Tank Man. But he is one of many that have disappeared amidst the Chinese government's efforts to erase the events of June 4 from the public consciousness.
To this day, there are no definitive numbers on how many people were killed. The government's official count is 241 dead, including an unspecified proportion of soldiers, and approximately 7,000 wounded, though estimates vary widely from the hundreds to the thousands depending on the source. The Chinese branch of the Red Cross reported 2,600 dead, though it later retracted that figure under government pressure.
Along with the names of those who were killed, the Chinese government has kept secret how many people were arrested in the days leading up to and following the massacre.
The U.S. State Department issued a statement Sunday, calling upon China to release anyone still imprisoned for participating in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, provide a full public accounting of those killed, detained or missing, and end the continued harassment of demonstration participants and their families.
On this the twenty-third anniversary of the violent suppression by Chinese authorities of the spring 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, the United States joins the international community in remembering the tragic loss of innocent lives, read the statement.
We renew our call for China to protect the universal human rights of all its citizens.
The American call for justice and human rights, however, is largely a formality, issued every year, while China and the U.S. vie for dominance in a strained relationship of economic codependence within a larger game of geopolitical chess.
The Ghost in the Stock Exchange
The Chinese government would like the Tiananmen Square Massacre to fade away into obscurity. The incident has been censored from history textbooks and popular media, and the government refuses to acknowledge it as anything but a brief political disturbance.
With the proliferation of the Internet throughout China, government censors have worked feverishly to block search terms related to the incident, particularly on anniversaries.
Terms like six four, tank, and candle, (referring to commemorative vigils) have been censored, but in a stranger-than-fiction coincidence, the Shanghai Stock Exchange index fell 64.89 points Monday, a number that bears an eerie resemblance to the date of the massacre, especially significant in numbers-happy Chinese culture. Soon after, the term stock exchange itself was censored.
The only place in China where acknowledgement of the incident is permitted is in Hong Kong, which was still a British territory in 1989.
Though Hong Kong was rejoined with China in 1997, it remains relatively autonomous under China's one country, two systems policy, and supports an open democratic society and political discourse that often levels criticism against the mainland.
Thousands of Hong Kongers gathered for a candlelight vigil to commemorate the anniversary of the massacre, as they have done every year.
Similarly, vigils were held in Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province though it has maintained its own state since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949.
Despite U.S. calls for accountability and the persistence of remembrance in prominent Chinese communities outside of the mainland, China appears to be moving on from the black mark on its past.
A Fading Memory
The generation of students that rose up in protest, now in their 40s, has been effectively silenced. Though they numbered in the thousands, they were a small, educated and privileged minority compared to China's hundreds of millions of poor and working classes.
The protests, in large part, arose in reaction to China's economic and political reforms, which began in the late 1970s and put China on a path toward stupendous economic growth, but failed to provide an equitable share of the wealth to most Chinese and completely ignored demands for a more democratic society.
As China has come to fully embrace a market economy, though with an authoritarian bent, it has been able to stave off civil unrest of Tiananmen proportions with turbo-charged growth in the past two decades that has provided more upward mobility for a larger proportion of its population.
The liberalization of China's economy and social norms have allowed people to pursue wealth and better economic opportunities, while concerns about political freedoms are more or less sidelined, both through intimidation and propaganda.
For those old enough to remember the massacre, it has become a taboo topic of conversation, alongside any discussion of the other two T's -- Taiwan and Tibet.
For most Chinese nationals under 30, the Tiananmen Square Massacre does not even register on their timeline of contemporary historical events.
While many families of the nameless dead or jailed are still seeking closure -- if not justice -- there is no indication that the government intends to stir up bad memories by acknowledging that these people actually exist.
But with signs that China's GDP growth is slowing down and a new generation of middle-class students competing in a bleak job market, the government may one day find itself faced with a similar atmosphere of discontent that erupted in the Tiananmen protests 23 years ago.