However famous the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen massacre may be outside of China, it is barely known in the country where it occurred. This can be baffling for outsiders: how could the Chinese government enforce this vast national amnesia of a major, recent event in their country's history, one in which the government sent troops to slaughter perhaps 2,600 peaceful protesters? How, in a country as well-educated and cosmopolitan as China, could this even be possible?
This 2005 short documentary "A Day Forgotten," made by Chinese filmmaker Liu Wei and flagged by China File's Susie Jakes, may be one of the most powerful and affecting attempts at an answer. The premise of the documentary is simple: Liu spends the 2005 anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre walking around asking people "do you know what day it is today" and films their response.
The reactions' on peoples' faces as they process his question, and the ways that they attempt to answer, is a powerful depiction of what it means to have your government forcefully suppress the memory of a painful national event. It's clear that the censorship goes way beyond shutting down news coverage and jailing dissidents — it's succeeded in getting regular people to internalize self-censorship. Some appear earnestly unaware, some find a way to signal their understanding without saying it outright. Others simply jog away, so sensitive is Tiananmen's memory that even asking the date on June 4 can scare people into flight.
When this was filmed, the massacre had been 16 years earlier — a little bit more time than has passed between the September 11, 2001, attacks and now. About as many people died in New York on September 11 as died in Beijing on June 4. Imagine if, on September 12, 2001, the US government had declared the previous day's attacks a non-event, ordered a complete media blackout, and enforced a campaign of censorship and intimidation so severe that even today people would run away if someone with a handheld camera asked them on September 11, 2014, what the date was.