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Remember Liu Si [Commentary]

History is peppered with memorable dates, spoken so many times over that they become embedded into the tongue, words and numbers that carry their own familiarity and flavor. July Fourth, Sept. 11th. In Chinese, remembering dates is even easier — each date can be expressed simply as a combination of numbers. Wu si — five four, for the 1919 May 4th movement. Shi yi — 10 one, for October 1st, Liberation Day. Liu Si — six four, June 4th.

Liu Si. Everyone knows Liu Si as the day that Chinese troops, with their assault rifles and tanks, arrived in Tiananmen Square to end the student-led demonstrations that called for a cleaner, more accountable and democratic government. On the 25th anniversary of the event last week, it was all over Western media and flowing through Chinese blogs disguised by clever puns and euphemisms — "h968" flipped upside down becomes "8964"; one popular picture showed a hand of playing cards with the numbers "8964" and "AK47."

But my mom saw these and scoffed, "What do these kids know about Liu Si? They were babies when it happened. They're just catching the Internet trend. The ones who can really talk about what happened are my age [she's in her forties], with families and jobs that they won't risk for any type of activism or remembrance. Or they're dead." She is right. For many of these netizens, the numbers have become just that: numbers.

Today, a week after the 25th anniversary — after the reporters had shared their stories, after the Chinese netizens finished their cat and mouse game of flipping numbers too fast for the government to catch on, after the hundred thousand candles in Hong Kong burned down — China and the world have relapsed back into silence.

For the Chinese overseas in the U.S., this is just another fact in the history books, a line in their history notes, something they feel no connection to. For the Chinese in China, this is a national tragedy that few will speak of for another 365 days, and rightfully so. The stakes are high: censorship, political and social stigma, imprisonment, death. Under Chinese President Xi Jinping's new government, things are already tighter than they have been in years.

A few pictures I posted on WeChat, China's popular social media platform, in remembrance of the event were met with anxious messages and a phone call from my uncle asking me to take it down; they all feared the government would use the site's "friends" and "contacts" lists against me in retaliation for my post. I have family still in China; friends at Johns Hopkins University, where I'm a senior, who are Chinese international students; friends in Beijing from my semester studying abroad there. "Liu Si is a sensitive topic," my uncle told me. "The government isn't going to joke around with it, especially not this year. You can put a lot of people at risk with those pictures."

But what of the hidden stakes? What happens when an event boils down to just numbers, numbers to an online trend, trends to a pop culture blip in the grand scheme of history? We forget. And with it, we forget the new country that these students hoped to achieve a quarter century ago, the reforms they tried to enact. We forget that in China's history, there was a prayer of a chance for change.

We must continue to look back and remember what happened in the spring of 1989. Liu Si is more than just a combination of numbers, more than two characters in a tweet or Weibo post, more than an online trend to be reposted, liked, shared, because everyone is doing it. We need to remember Liu Si for what it was. It was one day in a long timeline of bright hopes and dreams, brave demonstrations and protests, frightened tears and violent crackdowns. In a time without the Internet or social media, it was a coherent, collaborative effort to express dissatisfaction and clear goals for reform. Most importantly, it was an indisputable showing that the Chinese people have the potential, passive as they are, to stand up together. Liu Si is more than just numbers, more than just a date, more than just a historic tragedy or hard-learned warning. It was a moment of possibility, and so long as it is remembered as such, there is hope for China.

Jess Fong is a senior at the Johns Hopkins University, studying International Studies and Economics, with a concentration on China. She spent a semester abroad at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Her email is jfong7@jhu.edu.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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