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  • Silencing the Echoes of Tiananmen
  • Louisa Lim (bio)

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Miao Deshun is a living ghost, a revenant from an episode of history that China’s Communist leaders have worked hard to expunge. On June 4, 1989, he was jailed for flinging a basket onto a burning tank while soldiers shot unarmed civilians on the roads to Tiananmen Square. He has been in prison ever since. “He wouldn’t admit guilt,” said Sun Liyong, who served five years in Beijing Municipal No. 2 jail alongside Miao in the 1990s. “All the time he has been in prison, he has been resisting the government. For example, they wanted him to do forced labor, but if he didn’t want to do it, he wouldn’t do it.” Sun described a man of few words, whose silence masked [End Page 6] a stubborn defense of principle; when Miao’s parents tried to visit him in jail, he refused to see them for fear that his stance might bring them harm.

As China’s last known Tiananmen prisoner, Miao is due to be released in October, according to the Dui Hua Foundation. The length of his sentence is less the result of his actions in 1989 and more the consequence of his thought crime in prison. To the Communist Party, Miao’s refusal to admit guilt symbolizes both the failure of the criminal justice system and a repudiation of the official verdict of the 1989 protests as “counterrevolutionary turmoil.”

The events of 1989 transformed China, and the post-Tiananmen landscape that emerged was shaped by that act of violent repression. Maintaining this landscape requires further acts of repression—the repression of dissent, collective memory, speech and expression, political aspirations, and physical protest. These have escalated over time, and demanded more of the state’s ideological, physical, and financial resources.

“The 1989 massacre’s impact upon Chinese society, politics, and psychology has not ended,” civil rights lawyer Teng Biao, who now lives in exile in Princeton, New Jersey, told me this year. He left China in 2014, after being beaten and detained. Back in 1989 he was a 16-year-old [End Page 7] schoolboy in Huadian in Jilin province, who un-questioningly accepted official propaganda as truth. It was two years later when he entered Peking University that he discovered what had really happened. Despite the fact that he neither witnessed the killings nor took part in the protests, he said he sees himself as a Tiananmen survivor.

Teng drew a direct line from the deaths in 1989 to today’s clampdown on rights defenders when he addressed the Congressional-Executive Commission on China last year in Washington, D.C.: “As the activists are captured and tortured, the gunfire of Tiananmen is echoing in the background.” Indeed, the events of 1989 validated the use of force to ensure the party’s survival and boosted the development of the “stability maintenance” apparatus to guarantee that coordinated nationwide protests should never again threaten Communist rule.

China spent more on internal security—encompassing paramilitary police, surveillance systems, and an informant network—than on its military budget in three out of the past six years, according to its own figures, exposing the party’s fears that its major threats are domestic rather than external. The targets of its most recent crackdown have included dissidents, feminists, Tibetans, underground Christians, and rights activists, many of whom have reported detention without charge, sometimes in secret “black jails” without recourse to legal representation. This lack of due process is even applied to lawyers. While detained in a police station in 2010, Teng overheard a plainclothes policeman saying to another officer, “Why waste words on this sort of person? Let’s beat him to death and dig a hole to bury him in and be done with it.”


Burying history is not a simple matter, especially in a country with 688 million internet users. Back in 1989, controlling information was more straightforward. The party’s first step was to flood all channels with official propaganda painting the protests as “counter-revolutionary riots.” Over time, the booklets...


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pp. 6-11
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