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 3:14 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
Despite China's inexorable economic rise, the U.S. is still an indispensable ally, especially in Asia. No one knows this more than the Asian giant's leaders, writes Kerry Brown.
updated 6:59 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
The new U.S. deal with China on greenhouse gases faces enormous challenges in both countries. Jonathan Mann explains.
updated 10:38 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
For the United States and China to announce a plan reducing carbon emissions by almost a third by the year 2030 is a watershed moment for climate politics on so many fronts.
updated 3:26 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
China shows off its new stealth fighter jet, but did it steal the design from an American company? Brian Todd reports.
updated 8:01 PM EST, Mon November 10, 2014
Airshow China in Zhuhai provides a rare glimpse of China's military and commercial aviation hardware.
updated 8:14 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
A new exchange initiative aims to bridge relations between the two countries .
updated 12:51 AM EST, Tue November 11, 2014
Xi and Abe's brief summit featured all the enthusiasm of two unhappy schoolboys forced to make up after a schoolyard dust-up.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Mon November 10, 2014
Maybe you've decided to show your partner love with a new iPhone. But how about 99 of them?
updated 9:19 PM EST, Sun November 2, 2014
Can China's Muslim minority fit in? One school is at the heart of an ambitious experiment to assimilate China's Uyghurs.
updated 9:55 AM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is one of thousands of Americans learning Chinese.
updated 12:00 AM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou says he needs to maintain good economic ties with China while trying to keep Beijing's push for reunification at bay.
updated 1:28 AM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Chinese drone-maker DJI wants to make aerial photography drones mainstream despite concerns about privacy.
updated 1:18 AM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
A top retired general confesses to taking bribes, becoming the highest-profile figure in China's military to be caught up in war on corruption.
updated 10:42 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
China sends an unmanned spacecraft to the moon and back but is country following an outdated recipe for superpower status?
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Full marks for ingenuity: Students employ high-tech gadgets worthy of a spy movie to pass national exam.
updated 1:26 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Confucius Institutes seek to promote Chinese language and culture but some have accused them of "cultural imperialism."
updated 11:11 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Smooth jazz saxophonist Kenny G wants everyone to know that he's not a foreign agitator trying to defy the Chinese Communist Party.
ADVERTISEMENT