In China, a deliberate amnesia about ’89 crackdown

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In this Wednesday, May 28, 2014 photo, a man looks at his smartphone next to Chinese policemen and a paramilitary policeman standing guard near a giant electronic screen showing a Chinese government propaganda message reading “Dream road ahead, People’s Communist party” on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. Communist leaders have spent 25 years making sure there is no opportunity to discuss the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown that crushed pro-democracy protests at a cost of hundreds of lives. Far from easing off as China went through three changes of ruling party leadership and a revolution in social media, a relentless campaign aimed at erasing public memory of the most tumultuous event of the past three decades has been steadily updated and tightened. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

In this Wednesday, May 28, 2014 photo, a man looks at his smartphone next to Chinese policemen and a paramilitary policeman standing guard near a giant electronic screen showing a Chinese government propaganda message reading “Dream road ahead, People’s Communist party” on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. Communist leaders have spent 25 years making sure there is no opportunity to discuss the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown that crushed pro-democracy protests at a cost of hundreds of lives. Far from easing off as China went through three changes of ruling party leadership and a revolution in social media, a relentless campaign aimed at erasing public memory of the most tumultuous event of the past three decades has been steadily updated and tightened. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

In this Wednesday, May 28, 2014 photo, Chinese visitors gather underneath a shadow from a lamp post near a giant electronic screen showing Chinese government propaganda song lyrics reading “Without Communist Party, there is no new China” on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. Communist leaders have spent 25 years making sure there is no opportunity to discuss the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown that crushed pro-democracy protests at a cost of hundreds of lives. Far from easing off as China went through three changes of ruling party leadership and a revolution in social media, a relentless campaign aimed at erasing public memory of the most tumultuous event of the past three decades has been steadily updated and tightened. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

In this Wednesday, May 28, 2014 photo, Chinese school children pose for a group photo after performing a ceremony at the Monument to the People’s Heroes on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. Communist leaders have spent 25 years making sure there is no opportunity to discuss the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown that crushed pro-democracy protests at a cost of hundreds of lives. Far from easing off as China went through three changes of ruling party leadership and a revolution in social media, a relentless campaign aimed at erasing public memory of the most tumultuous event of the past three decades has been steadily updated and tightened. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

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BEIJING (AP) — Remember June 4, Shi Shusi asked the 1.5 million readers of his popular microblog last year. Moments later, his postings were erased. A note from the microblog operator said they were “inappropriate publicity.”

This year, a discouraged Shi hasn’t posted anything about the anniversary of the 1989 crackdown that crushed pro-democracy protests at a cost of hundreds of lives.

“Major media treat it as if it never happened,” said Shi. “Fewer and fewer young people get to know this issue. There is no opportunity to discuss it nowadays.”

Communist leaders have spent 25 years making sure of that. Far from easing off as China went through three changes of ruling party leadership and a revolution in social media, a relentless campaign aimed at erasing public memory of the most tumultuous event of the past three decades has been steadily updated and tightened.

1989 is hardly the only taboo for the ruling party. Tibet, Taiwan, the Falun Gong spiritual movement — all are subject to limits on what newspapers, bloggers and others are allowed to say. But even among the most explosive topics, 1989 stands out. Almost any mention is prohibited.

“June 4th is especially sensitive not only because of potential criticism for the government but because people can use it as a jumping-off point to bring people together,” said Jason Q. Ng, a researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab who follows Chinese efforts to censor Internet content.

“That is even more terrifying to them,” he said.

After the crackdown ordered by then-supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, communist leaders tried briefly to convince a skeptical Chinese public that violence against unarmed protesters was necessary to prevent a national disaster.

Leaders tried to evoke fear of a return to the chaos of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when radicals ravaged the country. State TV showed rowdy pro-democracy protesters and restrained soldiers. Spokespeople rejected reports of unarmed protesters being killed as anti-Chinese propaganda.

“People just didn’t buy that,” said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian at the University of California, Irvine, who studies Chinese student protest movements. “They had to stop telling that story and say, ‘Let’s not talk about this at all.’”

The upheaval cut short a trend in the late 1980s toward the ruling party allowing state-controlled media more freedom.

Then-party leader Zhao Ziyang had told regulators to ease press controls, which he said would “make things better.” Newspapers responded by reporting on public frustration at corruption and social controls.

After the crackdown, Deng fired Zhao and replaced him with Jiang Zemin. He presided over a new strategy — “correct guidance of public opinion.” It set the tone for pervasive controls over the next three decades as readers shifted from newspapers to websites to smartphones.

The Tiananmen crackdown “is absolutely crucial to understanding the way press censorship works today,” said David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project at Hong Kong University. “The notion was that you have to control public opinion through media control to maintain social and political stability.”

Commentators who hoped the rise of satellite TV, the Internet and social media would loosen the party’s monopoly

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