“I’m not very clear on it. It was something about the government sending the military there, and some people were injured.” — Chinese college student, 2004

It is not the primary responsibility of Americans and other Westerners to remember the Tiananmen Square massacre and reflect publicly on its meaning. But if we don’t, who will? Not the Chinese.

Wednesday marked the 25th anniversary of the brutal assault in which soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army expelled students from the public square and crushed a national protest movement.

The protests began as a spontaneous public show of mourning and respect for Hu Yaobang, a pro-reform leader who had died. They morphed into a movement that targeted corruption, expressed frustration with economic conditions and pushed for democracy, threatening the government’s iron rule.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people were killed in Beijing when the protests were crushed. Student leaders were arrested or went underground. Lofty ideals and aspirations for democracy and accountable government were driven underground, too.

China’s government noted this anniversary in time-honored fashion: by rounding up dissidents and other citizens deemed not trustworthy, by banning public references to June 4, and by otherwise ignoring the significance of the date.

Such tactics have worked over the years. Those Chinese citizens who are too young to have lived through the remarkable spring of 1989 have very little notion about what happened. Tiananmen is not taught in high schools or officially commemorated. The sanctioned description of the crackdown long ago was downgraded from “counterrevolutionary riot” to “political storm” to “incident” and even to “fuss.”

Visit the campus of a Chinese university and you’ll see how effective the propaganda arm of an authoritarian government can be. Even 15 years after the crackdown, students — such as the one quoted at the top of this editorial — had at best a vague awareness of what happened and little interest in keeping the issue alive.

“You can’t say it’s completely irrelevant, but we don’t talk about it,” another student told us then. “It’s something far away from us.”

The memories today are just as hazy. A few people want to keep the legacy of Tiananmen alive, but the government’s clampdown has been unrelenting, with reports in recent weeks of numerous arrests.

Those dramatic days produced one of the most iconic photos of the freedom movement of the late 20th century. The photo is of a lone person standing, at grave risk of being crushed, in the path of a tank that was leading a military phalanx on Chang’an Avenue on June 5, 1989.

When journalist Louisa Lim recently showed that photo to 100 students on the campuses of four Beijing universities, only 15 recognized the image. An astronomy major thought it was from Kosovo. A doctoral student guessed it was from South Korea.

In many countries that have a history of repression, economic development leads to political liberalization. That’s been especially true in Asia. But China has been an exception. The Communist leadership brooks no dissent, whitewashes history, censors the Internet, all to protect its control of the nation.

“While people’s lives at a personal level are very much freer, these extra efforts to clamp down on anything connected to Tiananmen show us there are still really distinct limits to the freedom Chinese people enjoy,” said Lim, a correspondent for NPR. She has written an aptly titled book, “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited.”

For those who remember, Tiananmen is an open wound. But few in China remember. That task falls to everyone else.

Editorial by the Chicago Tribune

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