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Inscribing the Tiananmen Massacre on UNESCO’s Memory of the World

(Source: “Tank Man” photo taken by Jeff Widener of the Associated Press)

By: Sebra Yen |

The Project 2049 Institute sat down with Dr. Han Lianchao for an interview on his Tiananmen-UNESCO Project entitled, “Inscribing the Tiananmen Massacre on UNESCO’s Memory of the World.” The Memory of the World Program, a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) initiative, aims to preserve and protect the world’s documentary heritage. The Tiananmen Memory refers to the Tiananmen Square protests that occurred on June 4, 1989 when student-led demonstrations were brutally suppressed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government. While the estimated number of deaths remains uncertain, in an attempt to retain the Party’s legitimacy, the CCP continues to censor the memory of this event from the Chinese people. 

Dr. Han offers unique insight on his quest for democracy in the People’s Republic of China. Dr. Han Lianchao is currently the Vice President of Initiatives for China, a grassroots organization dedicated to advancing a peaceful transition to democracy in China. Dr. Han was also a student organizer in the late 1970s prior to the Tiananmen protests. 

Why is having the memory of Tiananmen included in the Memory of the World Program (MoW) important for the international community? 

Almost 30 years ago, the Tiananmen Square Massacre resulted in many deaths. Scholars who work on this issue, both inside and outside of China, neither have a firm account of what truly happened, nor the actual number of innocent people killed―some say hundreds, some say thousands. The Chinese government deliberately tried to destroy information and conceal the truth from its people. As a result, the younger generations in China are clueless as to what happened. Moreover, the pro-democracy movement has completely dissolved due to the CCP’s actions. Therefore, the Tiananmen Square Archive Project is meant to fight against the Chinese society’s collective amnesia and state censorship in order to achieve truth and reconciliation. This professional archive is important because it is aimed towards becoming the foundation of a future Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). In the future, this archival collection could assist with legal proceedings.  We believe that if this issue is not addressed, China cannot move forward because millions of people participated in the 1989 protests that spanned the country, including many within the Communist regime. A democratic transition in China would not be possible without first resolving the Tiananmen Square issue. 

There are two parts to this archive project. First, we focus on the iconic image of the “Tank Man,” which Time Magazine recently included in its list of 100 photos that have changed or influenced the world. The idea is based on our campaign of “Finding Tank Men” initiated by Dr. Jianli Yang in 2015. Accordingly, we have focused on this historically significant image in a recent submission to UNESCO that includes “Tank Man” images taken by five international journalists and video footage shot by CNN and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Along with the Newseum and two renowned photojournalists Charlie Cole and Stuard Franklin, we have nominated the “Tank Man” images and video footages for the MoW. We hope this will serve as the beginning of a larger Tiananmen Archive collection that will be submitted as “documentary heritage” to UNESCO― the second part of our project.    

What is the process for the Tiananmen memory project to be accepted into the MoW  Program? Who is involved in the project? 

The MoW Program started in 1992 and was established to create more awareness about war and social upheaval.  The MoW register accepts project submissions every two years. May 30th was the deadline for 2016. The founder of the Tiananmen-UNESCO Project came up with the idea of finding “Tank Man” since no one knows whether “Tank Man” is dead or not. Moreover, the founder wanted to find more information about the massacre from the inside [of China]. The tanks withheld from killing “Tank Man,” which displayed a sense of tolerance. Therefore, interpretation of these actions can be used as part of the national reconciliation process because the other side [Chinese people acting on CCP/PLA orders] showed humanity and restraint in this case. This kind of spirit is needed on both sides to create momentum for national reconciliation.   

Although the “Tank Man” project has been submitted, a challenge occurred during the process. The UNESCO MoW program staff claimed the language in the nomination was not neutral and needed to be changed before they could accept and post it online. In terms of garnering support for this project, mobilizing people to support it occurred around March to April of last year. The project’s point of contact is Ursula Gauthier, a French journalist and human rights activist who was kicked out of China for reporting on the Uighur situation. She currently resides in France, where she works on the project’s administrative affairs. In addition, there are about 5-6 people working on the first half of the project (“Finding Tank Man”). The second half of the project (overall documentary heritage) involves the work of several dozens of NGO workers, activists, and museum experts based in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Europe, the United States, and mainland China. The working group has an international committee whose main goals are to (1) crowd source information, (2) digitize documents and records, and (3) set up an online archive. Ultimately, we seek to professionalize the information in order for it to be useful in future court settings, such as the truth finding committee or commission.     

The Nanjing Massacre and the Republic of Korea’s May 18th Democratic Uprising have already been submitted and inscribed in the Memory of the World register. What significance do these memories bring to the region and the international community? How does Tiananmen compare to these memories?  

The Tiananmen project is different from the Chinese government-backed Nanjing Massacre project. The Chinese government sought to politicize the issue through its efforts to inscribe the Nanjing incident. Additionally, in 2016, the comfort women issue was also nominated as a documentary heritage. The Japanese government strongly opposed this controversial issue because they believe there is a lack of viable evidence to support this claim. However, a matter to note is the timing of the Chinese submission of the [Nanjing Massacre] project as it occurred during the 70thanniversary of the Sino-Japanese War amidst a campaign launched by the CCP. This may have been a move to incite Chinese nationalism and perpetuate anti-Japanese sentiment, both of which are harmful in seeking truth. In contrast, the Tiananmen project seeks to find out who ordered the crackdown, how many people were killed, and how reconciliation can be achieved. The Tiananmen project is only viewed as controversial in nature due to the Chinese government’s on-going censorship and revision of the event. 

In terms of comparing the Republic of Korea’s May 18th Democratic Uprising (Gwangju [Kwangju] Uprising) with Tiananmen, a major difference is that Korean students turned to violence by taking up arms on the street and fighting against the military. The Chinese did not do that. Only a few people fought back for self-defense and the majority, mostly students, handed over weapons to the military and police, rather than taking matters into their own hands. With Tiananmen, it was mostly the military who committed the violence. The people did not advocate violence against violence. While I am not saying that bearing arms to counter the violence in Gwangju is wrong, I am simply noting the more peaceful struggle in Tiananmen. 

Given the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to stifle national memory of June 4th, 1989 what sort of challenges do you foresee in order to include Tiananmen as part of the register? Broadly, what impact has the CCP’s patriotic education policy and revision of the history of the Tiananmen event made on the Chinese people, society, and culture? 

One of the challenges is getting a vote from the Advisory Council. The Council is comprised of individuals who serve as experts in their personal capacities and do not represent states. These experts have a say in whether or not a project can be passed for documentary heritage for mankind. However, China has a lot of power in UNESCO, as it has plenty of its own UNESCO-certified GONGOs (government-organized non-governmental organization) that can influence policy and decisions. Moreover, they also have a lot of resources. Therefore, we need to work with democracies to try to get their support by asking them to vote on their conscience and the facts at hand, rather than political interests. Therefore, we work towards trying to prevent supporters from being bought by the Chinese government. Unfortunately, my organization will not be certified in UNESCO due to the PRC’s power and influence in the UN, as Chinese GONGOs have unfair lobby influence.

In regards to Chinese society and culture as a whole, collective amnesia already exists in China, particularly for the Tiananmen Massacre. The ‘Patriotic Education’ policy encourages society and people to forget this incident. The Chinese Communist Party  twists historical facts to maintain their one-party rule and its dictatorship. The CCP in particular tries to fight against ‘historical nihilism’ (歷史虛無主義) in China, which, in the eyes of the CCP, is any action that seeks to re-interpret history to negate the guiding position of Marxism and the historical inevitability of socialism in China, and thus deny the Communist regime’s legitimacy. It is part of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s campaign to strengthen his control over public media and opinion. The government has long blocked online media to prevent its citizens from discovering historical and contemporary truths. One example would be the CCP advocating for the idea that the Communists were the main force that fought the Japanese in China during World War II. In recent years, people have questioned the legitimacy of Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and other historical figures allegedly leading the fight. When they discover the facts given by the Chinese government do not add up, the Communist Party labels them as historical materialists.  Therefore, the notion of the historical inevitability of Communist rule over China perpetuates the false history propagated by the Communist Party.

Patriotic education has also led to two potential results that can be seen in Chinese society and culture.  One is the growing number of Chinese converting to Christianity, leading to a rapid growth that could potentially see China become the country with the largest number of Christians. This may be a result of Chinese people becoming disillusioned with the CCP and, thus, seeking Jesus or salvation in their lives. A second result, which goes in a different direction than the first, is the widespread over-indulgence in Chinese material life. Many people these days focus only on making money and do not care about anything else. The moral structure has completely collapsed. Both results demonstrate the psychological impact of policies pursued by the CCP and the lack of intrinsic hope in Chinese society. 

Finally, the impact of the Tiananmen Massacre has led to the Communist regime learning how to control and maintain social stability. They have become more sophisticated in coercion of Chinese society, as well as dealing with mass protests. Following the Massacre, the CCP immediately began to import riot control and civilian technology from the United States. China has essentially become a police state. This has made a huge impact on Chinese society and has led to many people, including those in the political system, to disregard faith or ideas in favor of materialistic indulgence. 

It is common to hear from authorities in Beijing that the decision to “forget” Tiananmen is beneficial for national unity and stability. Many in China have no interest to revisit the Tiananmen issue, do you believe this to be true? How do you hope the inclusion of Tiananmen as a Memory of the World will bridge generational or even political divides in China?  

There is a moral gap between the older and younger generations. Due to the CCP’s deliberate focus on guiding its citizens to have a materialistic lifestyle, fewer youngsters are interested in finding out about history and politics. Moreover, they know involvement in politics is risky. Making money, on the other hand, is not. Despite this, the Internet has played a role in assisting those who are idealistic and concerned about China’s future. Some are able to climb over the “Great Firewall of China”. Additionally, many of the younger generations struggle to find a job or buy a house. The serious pollution problem, food and water crises, systematic corruption, and so on, have all led people to question the legitimacy of the CCP and its ability to govern. Although the government is able to control information, technology has empowered individuals to find a way around these restrictions. For example, the Chinese government has heavily regulated information about the Panama Papers online, yet this piece of news has been shared across WeChat and other social media platforms. 

Overall, I see two contrasting elements: (1) government control and (2) more people, including those in politics, are aware that this way of life and running the country is increasingly unsustainable. Therefore, it is time to resolve the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The current goal of the Chinese leadership is to maintain permanent rule of the CCP, so the inclusion of Tiananmen as a memory of the world would be a destabilizing factor given it jeopardizes their goal. However, initiating this project forces the Chinese leadership to face this issue; they will need to come to a decision on Tiananmen one way or another. We need accountability. This project is a way to force societal transition and have political reform. 

As a student who was a part of China’s pro-democracy movement, can you talk more about what inspired you to pursue this project? 

Here is the short version. I was born into a Communist family and my parents were CCP government officials. I was brainwashed by Marxism and Maoist ideas. But the Cultural Revolution changed me; my family was purged, humiliated and suffered a great deal. During that time, a lot of people died, and my parents attempted to commit suicide. My brother, sister and I were also persecuted. After this incident, I began to question the political system in China. Eventually, as China opened up, I read more books and realized the root of all evil in China is the Communist one-party system. I also started to read about advocacy. In college, I helped organize the first student protests for free elections in the late 1970s. During the 1989 pro-democracy protests, social media did not exist back then and many people did not have Internet access or phones due to high costs, so we relied on fax machines to mobilize and communicate to support the students in Tiananmen Square. Following the Tiananmen Massacre, the views of the Chinese people towards the CCP changed; the CCP was the enemy that needed to be replaced with a democratic system. Once you arrive at that conclusion, there is no return.   

A lot of people and their family, including current leaders of the CCP, all suffered from the Cultural Revolution. One of the members of the Standing Committee and his family were killed during the Cultural Revolution. His sister was a high school student who committed suicide because of humiliation. Even Xi Jinping was persecuted by the Communists during this time. In this type of unsustainable political model, no one is safe. Additionally, a dictator who enjoys absolute power will make lots of mistakes and harm many people. For a long time, the violence I experienced made me completely disconnected from the world. I did not want to talk about the humiliation and the scars in my heart. I never pursued psychology treatment and was very resentful about many things. I think it is very common to not openly discuss these traumatic events. You want to hide it. But we all need to find truth to have peace. More importantly, a nation also needs to know the truth before it can move forward. This is why I am pursuing the Tiananmen Square Archive Project: to achieve reconciliation in society, not create conflict. 

What are the next steps for the Tiananmen memory project? If accepted by the MoW Program, what do you hope will be the enduring significance of the project? 

First off, we need to monitor the UNESCO’s MoW process to make sure our Tank Man nomination receives fair consideration and a vote. Secondly, we must allocate resources to start collecting and archiving files, documents, images, videos, eyewitness accounts, and physical items related to the Tiananmen Massacre. This requires enormous work and commitment to get done. If the Tank Man is successfully inscribed in the MoW, the inscription alone will have lasting significance because it affirms the historic value that a peaceful protester’s individual act can make a difference when facing the powerful, which I believe captures the true spirit of the Tiananmen protests. The inscription will not only allow us to remember the Tiananmen Massacre but will also inspire the Chinese people to advocate for their freedoms and basic rights. 

Similarly, we hope that the Tiananmen Archive Project will mobilize civil society in China, start momentum to vindicate the protesters, and ultimately create a new opportunity for democratic transition and national reconciliation. If UNESCO accepts this project as a documentary heritage, it again affirms the heroic act of the peaceful protesters, and permanently recognizes their contribution to human progress.  

Sebra Yen was an Intern at the Project 2049 Institute. He is currently a Master’s candidate at The Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University, where he focuses on Taiwan and Asian politics and security. The author would also like to thank Emily David for her contributions.