Why today is May 35, not June 4, for many Chinese

Today is, of course, June 4. But a lot of people in China mark the date as May 35. For a reason.

June 4 is a red-letter day in China’s history, since it marks the anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on student protesters at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. That protest movement will go down as one of the largest, most explosive and spontaneous demonstrations of “people’s power” in China, which very nearly toppled the Communist Party regime that has ruled China since 1949.

June 4 is a red-letter day in China’s history, since it marks the anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on student protesters at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Feng Li/Getty Images

The students’ movement demanding political and economic reform ended bloodily when the Communist Party ordered in troops and tanks to clear the Tiananmen Square on the night of June3-4, 1989. An estimated 3,000 people died, according to media accounts, although the official count is only 241 deaths.

Even 22 years later, the Communist Party leadership disallows any public discussion of the protest movement, or any commemoration of the victims. (The absurd lengths to which authorities go to disallow media coverage around Tiananmen Square on key anniversary dates can be had from these videos: CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, and AFP.)

Even a casual mention of June 4 (or 6/4) is scrubbed out from online forums, for fear that it might refer tangentially to the Tiananmen Square protest movement of 1989.

But Chinese online activists who  want to keep alive the memory of the Tiananmen Square movement have in recent years resorted to inventive ways in their cat-and-mouse game to beat the censors.

One way is to mark the date in their discussions as May 35 (instead of June 4) in order to circumvent the censors. This blog post explains the linguistic nuances for that and other Tiananmen – related phrases.

The blogger is N Jayaram, a Hong Kong-based journalist. In 1989, Jayaram was posted in Beijing as PTI’s correspondent, and was the only Indian journalist to have witnessed history as it unfolded in the days leading up to the June 4 denouement. Two years ago, on the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, I had interviewed Jayaram  to get his account of those dramatic days. You can read it here.

In recent years, Chinese activists have found other ways of sneaking in mentions about the unmentionable Tiananmen anniversary.

In 2007, for instance, a one-line classified advertisement was slipped into a provincial Chinese newspaper. The ad said:  “Paying tribute to the strong mothers of June 4 victims.

Given the collective denial of history, and the control that the state wields on information flows, an entire generation of Chinese citizens has grown up without an adequate understanding of what happened on the night of June 3-4, 1989. In fact, the date represents a “blind spot” in history, which may account for why that ad didn’t ring an alarm bell.

Supplementary reading:

An interview with a 1989 student protestor.

An interview with Andrew J Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia University and a specialist in Chinese politics and foreign policy. Prof Nathan edited the Tiananmen Papers, a sensational account of the conflict within the Communist Party in 1989 about how to handle the protest movement. The book was based on hundreds of top-secret official documents, obtained by a reformist-minded compiler (identified pseudonymously as Zhang Liang), and it revealed how close the Chinese regime was to collapse in 1989, and how deep the split in the Communist Party ran.

The legacy of Tiananmen Square and how Hong Kong plans to commemorate it.

Bonus videos

The Tank Man of Tiananmen Square: an amazing PBS documentary on one ordinary man who stood up to the might of the Chinese Army tanks on the day after the crackdown in Tiananmen Square.


Plus pictures from Tiananmen Square today here and here.


Updated Date: Jun 04, 2011 12:57 PM

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