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The "Tank Man" photo – one of the world's most iconic images but China barely recognises it

How China is erasing the Tiananmen massacre from history

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the tragedy, but the Chinese government is trying its best to make sure nobody remembers

25 years ago this week, one of the world's most infamous demonstrations was taking place in Beijing, China. The Tiananmen Square massacre was sparked by the death of political reformer Hu Yaobang, a man who campaigned against the country's corrupt political elite. When he died of a heart attack in April 1989, 50,000 students gathered in Tiananmen to pay their respects to a liberal hero. But as the peaceful protests escalated, so did the the government crackdown on proceedings. By June 4, blood was running through the streets of Beijing. An estimated 500 to 2,600 people were killed in the Tiananmen Square massacre.

It's an event that China is desperate to erase from the history books, and this month marks an unprecedented government effort to do so in the run-up to the 25th anniversary of the tragedy. So how does one country try to wipe all traces of one of the most important political events in history? Here's how China has successfully rewritten its own history books.


As the June anniversary of the massacre approaches every year, Google services in China suspiciously slow down. This year, Google services affected include the search engine, Maps, Translate, and Gmail. Even though Google moved their search engine to Hong Kong in 2010, it remains under attack from the Chinese government, which seeks to dictate the flow of information around Tiananmen. Right now, you can't even load the Chrome start page in China, although a group of internet activists called GreatFire have created a mirror site to bypass the Great Firewall of China. 

Google isn't the only site affected by the Great Firewall. In 2010, Foursquare was banned due to an unusually high amount of check-ins near the square, as people used Foursquare as a means to signal their solidarity with the student victims of the massacre. Plus, the Chinese government blocks search terms related to the massacre. Terms such as "six four", "candle" and "massacre" return no results, while searching for Tiananmen Square provides no information about the massacre – just bland images of the square as it stands today.


There have been numerous reports of journalists being arrested in the build-up to this year's anniversary. In March, three journalists and the director of a human rights website were detained for reporting two incidents near Tiananmen Square. Huang Qi, the founder of the human rights website 64 Tianwang, was arrested and had his computer, USB drives and mobile phone confiscated by police.

On Sunday night, a Chinese-born Australian artist called Guo Jian was taken away from his home in suburban Beijing by the authorities. He told an AP reporter that he expected to be home on June 15. His latest piece was a mini-model of Tiananmen Square, which he covered in minced pork and removed once the meat had rotted. 

Over the weekend, a French broadcaster was whisked away to a police station within minutes when officers spotted him showing Chinese citizens pictures of the Tiananmen massacre, including THAT iconic "tank man" photo.

At the end of May, a Chinese journalist working for a Japanese newspaper was also detained on suspicion of "provoking troubles" and "picking quarrels". Chinese authorities have warned that journalists who report on any sensitive issues relating to Tiananmen will face severe consequences. Critics of the Chinese government or outspoken intellectuals are routinely placed under constant surveillance, with the police officers assigned to monitor any relationships between writers who could be engaging in anti-government activism.


The massacre has been totally obliterated from history lessons in Chinese schools. A USA Today report showed that only 15 out of 100 students could correctly identify the "Tank Man" photo and the circumstances under which it was taken. That's a shockingly low figure for a such a recent event, and one of the world's most iconic photographs to boot. Neither the 1989 protests or the ensuing massacre is mentioned in Chinese texbooks.


Unsurprisingly, the square is under heavy security. Before entering the square, visitors are searched by security personnel who also put their bags through security scanners. Plainclothes police officers patrol the site. Tiananmen itself is covered in surveillance cameras and visitors to the square often remark on the uneasy sensation caused by being heavily watched. And in case any protestors attempt to self-immolate (set themselves on fire), there are numerous fire extinguishers dotted around the square to put out any flames.