Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Twenty-five years later, Tiananmen Square no less taboo for China's censors

By Zoe Li, CNN
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
 A girl wounded during the clash between the army and students on June 4, 1989.
A girl wounded during the clash between the army and students on June 4, 1989.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hu Yaobang's death sparked student demonstrations in 1989, ending in tragedy
  • Netizens were allowed to mourn Hu's death anniversary on Tuesday
  • All other mentions of the student protests or political reform still censored

(CNN) -- Twenty-five years ago, Chinese college students in Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi'an began gathering to publicly mourn the death of a purged high-level official, Hu Yaobang.

A week later, thousands of students marched into Tiananmen Square for Hu's funeral.

The demonstrations escalated, culminating in the tragic military crackdown on the students on June 4, 1989 when Chinese troops opened fire on civilians and students. An official death toll has never been announced, but estimates range from several hundred to thousands.

In the lead-up to the 25th anniversary of the bloody incident this year, there are mixed signals from the Chinese authorities on their attitude towards the normally taboo subject.

After three generations of leadership since the student protests, there are signs of the authorities loosening online censorship of related subjects, although direct mention of "June 4th" is still banned.

From a Chinese prison to Wall Street
1989: Man vs. tank in Tiananmen square
China calls Beijing attack terrorism

Marking death

Formerly the general secretary of the Communist Party, Hu Yaobang was a close ally of Deng Xiaoping. He worked with Deng to consolidate power and move China toward a more open political system, becoming a symbol of democratic reform.

Hu died of complications from a heart attack on April 15, 1989, two years after he was purged by party conservatives for advocating "bourgeois liberation." His death sparked a wave of student demonstrations across China that escalated into a hunger strike and the eventual military crackdown at Tiananmen Square.

With such a close link to the crackdown -- which the Chinese government has yet to acknowledge or apologise for -- Hu's name was banned from media until 2005 when his protégé, Hu Jintao, came into power and rehabilitated his mentor's name.

Last week, retired president Hu Jintao paid his respects at the late Hu's former residence in Jiangxi. Online reports and images of the visit were taken down by Chinese censors.

By Tuesday, the official anniversary of Hu's death, his former residence in Beijing was sealed and guarded by police, according to Hong Kong media. The home is normally open to public on the anniversary.

Hu's son, Hu Dehua, also visited his father's cemetery yesterday in Jiangxi Province. He told the media that had gathered at the gravesite that he was bewildered by the lack of official contrition for the Tiananmen Square incident. "What crime did the students commit?" he asked.

He further pointed out the contrast in the way authorities have handled the possible deaths of the Malaysian Airlines passengers against those of the students in 1989, calling it a double standard.

Still touchy

Despite all this, Chinese censors loosened their grip that same day. Hu Yaobang's name could be freely searched and online commemorations began to flood microblogging sites. Chinese news sites also published commemorative features on the ousted leader, including photos of Hu with his most famous protégés Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao.

The Beijing News gathered sentimental quotes from past essays on the late leader, written by other high-ranking officials. One by Hu Jintao reads: "After Comrade Hu passed away, I would visit his home every Spring Festival and gaze with deep affection at his portrait in the living room. His far-reaching vision and determined expression always gave me strength and encouragement."

But censors draw the line at any direct mention of the tragic crackdown. Searches for "June 4," "Tiananmen Square," and "Zhao Ziyang" (an official who was seen as sympathetic to the student protestors) yield nothing.

And by linking Hu Yaobang's career to any discussion of China's political system, you will get swiftly banned from the Chinese online world. An interview by the South China Morning Post with Hu's outspoken son, criticizing the lack of political reform and press freedom was deleted from the paper's Chinese Weibo account.

As the June 4 date draws near, this litmus test of the authorities' tolerance shows Tiananmen Square is no less an issue after 25 years.

From a Chinese prison to Wall Street

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:44 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
A Chinese couple allegedly threw hot water on a flight attendant and threatened to blow up the plane, forcing the Nanjing-bound plane to turn back to Bangkok.
updated 12:03 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
China's 1.3 billion citizens may soon find it much harder to belt out their national anthem at will.
updated 7:21 PM EST, Tue December 9, 2014
Like Beijing today, Los Angeles in the last century went through its own smog crisis. The city's mayor says LA's experience delivers valuable lessons.
updated 12:42 AM EST, Sat December 6, 2014
At the height of his power, Zhou Yongkang controlled China's police, spy agencies and courts. Now, he's under arrest.
updated 3:26 AM EST, Fri December 5, 2014
China says it will end organ transplants from executed prisoners but tradition means that donors are unlikely to make up the shortfall.
updated 1:48 AM EST, Fri December 5, 2014
China's skylines could look a lot more uniform in the years to come, if a statement by a top Beijing official is to believed.
updated 3:55 AM EST, Wed December 3, 2014
Despite an anti-corruption drive, China's position on an international corruption index has deteriorated in the past 12 months.
updated 7:01 AM EST, Wed November 26, 2014
A daring cross-border raid by one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's associates has -- so far -- yet to sour Sino-Russian relations.
updated 7:51 PM EST, Sun November 23, 2014
A 24-hour Taipei bookstore is a hangout for hipsters as well as bookworms.
updated 8:53 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
China is building an island in the South China Sea that could accommodate an airstrip, according to IHS Jane's Defence Weekly.
updated 5:57 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
North Korean refugees face a daunting journey to reach asylum in South Korea, with gangs of smugglers the only option.
updated 6:19 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
China and "probably one or two other" countries have the capacity to shut down the nation's power grid and other critical infrastructure.
ADVERTISEMENT