It looked innocuous: a line of classified advertising buried on page 14 of the Evening News, a tabloid in the city of Chengdu, in Sichuan province. It read: "Saluting the strong mothers of victims of 64." Then all hell broke loose. Once again, Chinese politicians demonstrated their hysterical fear of history. The number "64" means June 4 (as in the abbreviation "06/04"), the date of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, when the government sent tanks against unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators, killing hundreds or perhaps thousands of them. The ad appeared last month on the 18th anniversary of that atrocity, saluting women who lost sons or daughters and still demand Tiananmen be investigated.
In China, it's forbidden to mention the Tiananmen killings, just as it's forbidden to mention the Cultural Revolution. The government would like to cleanse the minds of all citizens with something like the handy "standard-issue neuralyzer," used to erase disturbing memories by anti-alien operatives in the film Men in Black.
When the ad appeared in print, someone put it on the Web and made it instantly famous. Officials immediately retrieved all unsold copies of the paper from street kiosks, launched an investigation and fired the deputy editor of the paper and two others.
But how did this outrage occur? The clerk who accepted the ad and inserted it in the paper was too young to remember Tiananmen. And she certainly never learned about it through television or the newspapers. In this case, censorship defeated censorship. Kept in the dark, she didn't know a secret when she saw one. She had no way of knowing what she wasn't supposed to know.
Chinese politicians, once Marxists, have long since lost their fear of capitalism; they love it so much they often enrich themselves by becoming part-time capitalists. But their anxiety about the past grows, along with their fear of the public. They know that if the people are roused they will be ungovernable.
A recent collection of essays, Challenging China: Struggle and Hope in an Era of Change (The New Press), edited by Sharon Hom and Stacy Mosher, argues that China's patronage-ridden legal system allows both widespread corruption and low levels of competence. This has obvious international implications when it leads to poisoned food and ineffective reporting of communicable disease.
Hom and Mosher suggest that the Chinese authorities are being challenged by their own people on the issue of corruption. Citizens know about official corruption from their own experience, but it's impossible to discuss its broader meaning in public. Newspapers reporting on corrupt land expropriation have been closed. Reporters covering sensitive stories have been attacked. And the government has invested heavily in Internet filters and the monitoring of content.
One of the book's contributors, Wang Juntao, who was imprisoned after Tiananmen and eventually sent into exile, mentions the theory that inhuman elements of Confucian thought could be responsible for China's backwardness in civil liberties: "Today's Chinese scholars are still debating whether traditional Chinese political thought includes the concept of human rights."
What the government fears most is the emergence of civil society. Edward Shils, the American sociologist, wrote that a civil society "is one in which society is superior to the state." It requires independent judges, unfettered religion, political parties openly competing for power, businesses operating independently and media of opinion uncontrolled by the state. China has none of those institutions. The very idea of them strikes terror in the hearts of the Communist Party leadership. So does any honest discussion of modern history.
In an interview last autumn, the 2000 Nobel laureate in literature, Gao Xingjian, confessed to a journalist from Die Welt that he was among those who collaborated with the regime during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s: "Of course I collaborated. I participated in critique sessions, and pretended I belonged. If I hadn't, I would have instantly been branded an enemy."
There was no other way to survive: "People behaved like wolves back then. How can an entire people go berserk?"
In private nowadays, it's said that certain zealots made mistakes. Not at all, Gao argues: "It wasn't only some people, it was everyone." As he recalls it, a whole nation surrendered to a frenzy of anger and violence. It was one of the most remarkable events of the 20th century, in China or anywhere else, but the people involved still can't talk about it openly and if they are wise they won't even mention it in public. The world's largest nation has become the People's Republic of Silence.