The Tiananmen Tragedy Revisited

The 12-hour train ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai gave me time to read a new book that, despite some flaws, I found extraordinary. Red China Blues is a sort-of memoir by Globe & Mail correspondent Jan Wong. Actually, the first two thirds are a memoir, chronicling Wong’s experience as a Canadian-born ethnic Chinese taking part in the Cultural Revolution as a Maoist in 1972; the rest of the book focuses in relative detail on some aspect of China post-Cultural Revolution, most notably the Tiananmen Square massacre, which Wong was “lucky” enough to witness for herself, as well as the phenomenon of Chinese women sold or kidnapped to be wife-slaves in remote villages.

Way back in January I wrote that there are only a handful of topics that move me to tears simply by thinking of them. Yes, I know I am a sentimental fool, but when it comes to these subjects, the lump in the throat and the fighting back of tears are nearly automatic. The image of the New York City firefighters receiving last rites before they raced to their doom to save the lives of innocents during the 911 attack on the World Trade Center is one. Another is the Oskar Schindler creating the list that saved more than a thousand Jewish lives.

And then, most poignant to me –and I can’t say exactly why — was the young man standing off against the tank shortly before the People’s Liberation Army, on direct orders of then Chairman Deng Xiaoping, shot to death thousands of innocent Chinese citizens, mainly young students, in the streets around Tiananmen Square on June 3-4, 1989. Maybe it is because I actually “saw” (via television at least) the young man dancing with the tank, that this image has remained so fresh and vivid. It was fourteen years ago, and I still can’t overcome the flood of emotion I experience at any reference to it.

Jan Wong’s revelations of what it was actually like to be a part of the Cultural Revolution in all of its glory, in all of its insanity, is gripping and immensely informative. It certainly enriched my insight into why the Chinese are the people they are today. At times it made me furious, while often I simply had to laugh at the absurdity of it all. But ultimately there is little to laugh about; countless innocents lost their lives, and the same dogmatic brutality that brought us those ten years of hell also brought us the slaughter of the students in 1989.

I am grateful to Wong for shattering some of the myths we have (or that I have, anyway) about Tiananmen Square. The students weren’t always noble. There was a lot of grandstanding and made-for-TV melodrama, and most ironically, the students in the square had set up their own little dictatorship and circles of authority that mirrored those of their oppressors. They were also gathering firearms. That said, it remains one of the most ruthless and bloody misdeeds of the second half of the century.

Wong brings us right into the midst of the holocaust. She describes moment by moment how the protests started and evolved, bringing the world’s greatest plutocracy to the brink of civil war. Most shocking is the utter wickedness of Deng & Co. as they decided to commit cold-blooded mass murder. The oppressive heat was wearing down the students’ momentum. Many on their own accord were leaving or getting ready to leave. Most horrifying to me was reading of how the troops opened fire on groups of students and civilians who were already in the process of leaving. The troops used machine guns and AK-47s and fired into the stampeding crowds again and again and again and again. It was sheer butchery. Wong takes us to her balcony in the Beijing Hotel overlooking the square, and you can almost hear the gunfire as she describes the volleys and their effects in excruciating detail. Finally, tanks came in and intentionally crushed students alive.

It has been confirmed that at least 2,600 citizens were wiped out on the dawn on June 4, though Wong says the final number is certainly far higher. (The government claims it was only a few hundred, and they were only shot after they started shooting the soldiers.)

I always wondered why there wasn’t more outrage about the massacre. I remember hearing a political analyst shortly afterward saying that anyone who understood the history and the mentality of the Chinese Communist Party knew that the massacre was inevitable. There was simply no way that they could deal with such a challenge to their one-party, iron-fisted rule. Deng Xiaoping’s ending of the Cultural Revolution and opening of China’s markets might seem to us to be “good deeds,” but in reality his goals were not that different from Mao’s — to strengthen the central government’s control over its people and ensure the party’s endurance. Deng realized China and its leadership would fall apart if it didn’t have a body of educated citizens to compete in the modern world. The Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four had turned the nation’s bastions of higher learning into travesties, mass-producing little miniature Maos at best, and thuggish zealots at worst. Deng knew he had no choice; the Cultural Revolution was ended. It was certainly the right thing to do, but it was first anjd foremost a practical decision; I don’t believe it was inspired by any sense of altruism or humanity.

Wong goes on to describe many other sins of her once beloved Central Party. She describes impoverished peasants in Gansu province eating dirt, and families selling their daughters into slavery. She also describes the bullet-paced growth of China’s economy in recent years, and how it just might create enough of a middle class to break the country out of its 4,000-year-old feudal system. Toward the end she writes:

My disillusion with the workers’ paradise has not made me more cynical, just less patient. Having been there myself, I can no longer tolerate dogma in any form. I am suspicious of anything that is too theoretically tidy, too black and white. If I adhere to any creed today, it’s the belief in human dignity and strength. Anything I do believe in today has to stand up to reason — and be explainable to my five-year-old son.

So back to my sentimental reaction to the young man facing the tank. It was simply so brave, so beautiful, so…magnificent. The evil machinery of the Chinese Communist Party was being brought to a halt — being brought to its knees — by a young anonymous man who showed the courage to stand up to that evil machinery. And he disappeared and was never heard from again. (Wong believes he is alive and in hiding.) The poignancy of this moment, when the entire world held its breath and the Last Evil Empire quivered, can never be forgotten, just as the Tiananmen Massacre can never be forgiven. And I want anyone who happens to stumble onto my site and who actually has the patience (masochism?) to read such over-long posts as this to remember that the leadership in China today is basically the same as it was then. A little more relaxed, a little more open, and Jiang Zemin looks adorable when he smiles on TV. But as the SARS scandal drove home so vividly, they still exist to protect their privileged position and to stifle any and all criticism. Their key strategy is to keep China’s citizenry as ignorant and as powerless as possible. Those who speak up are still imprisoned. And if students were to gather again in Tiananmen Square, they would be slaughtered as heartlessly today as they were 14 years ago.

More posts about Tiananmen Square:
Tiananmen Square re-revisited
The story behind the Tiananmen Square “tank man” photo

Reappraising Tiananmen Square

The Discussion: 14 Comments

First, thank you for your excellent writing, one that doesn’t deter from revealing your own emotion when faced with the facts of what happened. I too remember that fateful day in 89 and I too have read Wong’s book with the same reaction as yours. I really don’t have anything to add to what you wrote–you said it all. I just stumbled onto your site today, and because this entry was written back in May, I still think it is relevant, just based on my experience here for the three years. Again thanks…and I will be reading you regularly.

November 8, 2003 @ 1:59 pm | Comment

Are you sure China’s the ‘last evil empire?’ lol you make me laugh…oh by the way you aren’t
by any chance American are you?

June 4, 2004 @ 8:04 am | Comment

I find it sad that most foreginers’ only impression of China lingers around the tianmen square incident….

December 17, 2004 @ 9:21 pm | Comment

Cattalk I think it’s not the tienenmen square incident that’s the ‘only impression’ but the whole question of what is the truth of it?, why isn’t it freely known?, what does it mean about this country (china) today? and so on…. It’s the ramifications of it that persist in the foreigners mind. And you’d do well to let them persist in yours, too.

We all would. There’s a tianenmen square incident capable of happening in every country in the world. If you can’t see into your own society and see how it could happen there then you’re ignorant of your own society and vulnerable to just such an incident.

This is the larger significance. The broader ramification. The lesson China can teach the world.

It is right to be said that people go away from China with apparently so little learned and so little to reflect on. But how much do the Chinese try to redress this balance?

When was the last time you heard of a Chinese saying to the world “look at this lesson you can learn from China?”

February 20, 2005 @ 5:46 pm | Comment

thanks for the wonderul, will written entry. A joy to read.

ps. i just stumbled upon your site today, and must say that you expressed eloquently the feelings i too have about the govt. and the 1989 crackdown.

April 9, 2005 @ 6:52 pm | Comment

I hope (sincerely) you can make your new life nice. I’m an occident man who made his way to asia in search of peace. So, may Buda be with you always.

Dil kee gaharaeon se
Upna Khyal Rakhna


July 15, 2005 @ 10:57 pm | Comment

the information is good

October 5, 2005 @ 5:37 am | Comment

Thanks for leading my son to Xiao Qiang for his 7th grade student paper. He’s also heard back from James Miles (BBC Beijing at the time and a later interviewer of students), Ling Chai, Boli Zhang, and others. For his project, he’s still looking for a source on how many died during those days of Tiananmen 1989 AND how many are still today imprisoned. Can you help? Thanks, Stephen

February 1, 2006 @ 10:25 am | Comment

It’s all speculation until the CCP opens their archives. No one knows, but lots of guesses are out there.

February 1, 2006 @ 10:31 am | Comment

I have something that need you help.
cause i am in China, i can not get enough informaion about 8964. But i want to know the truth,
so i wonder that if you have some videos about Tiananmen Square, especially the film named “the gate of heavenly peace” about 8964 movemnet,
i really want to watch that,
if you had, i hope that you can send to me , Really thanks.

you can join my MSN to connect with me, ok?
thanks again, cause it`s really hard for me to find and go to your page again through China`s internet.

I ` m waiting for you.

MY msn :

June 26, 2006 @ 1:26 pm | Comment

You need to get onto the PBS web site and download the tiananmen Tank Man show – easy to find using google. Gate of Heavenly Peace is expensive and you can’t seeit anywhere for free, undfortiunately.

June 26, 2006 @ 5:26 pm | Comment

Website in Construction:

Married to a beautiful Chinese woman, now an American Citizen, I have been taken on a journey across the world twice already– to Hong Kong, Tsenshen, Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, and last but definitely not least, Chongqing, the Gotham City of my wife’s birth and where a big part of her family settled back in 1949, and still lives today. They helped to run Chongqing, her father, who endured many uncertain and even dangerous times as a politician in and out of favor during the Cultural Revolutions of Mao, a quiet and purposeful City of Chongqing goverment official along with his wife, the only woman chosen to be a Leader in the group associated with people like Zhou (my wife’s family name also) En Lai, back when the Communists took over, and both rewarded with high position for their share of work and dedication and suffering during the Long March and the conversion of Chongqing and the nearby Cities and Provinces to that new Revolutionary Governement. And the family also enjoys some influence in Beijing, workingh for Government owned internationla bound Companies. I like Beijing, Chengdu and Chongqing, although Chongqing needs anti-pollution controls now before it is too late for the children to look forward to healthy adult life — as it is, the City is magnificently set in the mountains where the Jailing and Yangtze Rivers, meet, both canyon rivers at this point in Southwest China. Ther are literally no earthquakes here as the City is built on solid rock formation with no rifts. I am very attached to Chongqing ahving lived there in my Chinese family’s home near the Chongqing Governemnet Square for weeks at a time.

I myself see the huge strides they have made in China which has created an actual middle class that is not being disenfranchised as in the United States, the Chionese capitalist machine that grows at the speed of light compared to our Western countries, and I only wish that the Governement, with all it’s wisdom in regard to creating effective and people friendly infrastructure (the trains run on time, and all is up to speed modern, not outdated as in the States/it tries to emulate and utilizes Japanese – like technology), jobs abound everywhere, the government also providing easily accessible and qualified healthcare, advanced education and working opportunity in the Cities and even out in the nearby old farm type provincial lands, would take on the courage required to allow personal freedoms and free speech to the peoples of China.

My wife’s sister’s ex brother in law is gone, a semi-famous Beijing Reporter and accomplished writer up to and before the 1989 massacre–he was murdered by a Chinese soldier, shot right between the eyes in Tianenmem Square. His biological daughter is a tall brilliant beauty of a girl who does not even know the truth about her courageous Dad, who was only doing his job at the time, not even a dissident, only a great Reporter and perhaps writer of the Truth. Her and her mom live in Canada, where freedom and the mother’s memory keep them away from their original homeland. A pity as I have grown to love what China is in many ways, aside from political concerns. It is a Country and Culture all on the planet should visist at least oncve, as it is a rich traditional yet now exposive place to be for those lucky enough to enjoy the opportunties it presents.

In that I have great hopes for China for many good reasons, having met hundreds of it’s good citizens and having actual family friends like brothers and sisters there that look out for me as one of their special own when i am ion China and Hong Kong, I sincerely hope that someday the PRC Chinese Government transforms according to the actual wishes of it’s peoples, that Tianenmem is fully apologized for and that the dead are remembered and all the families compensated, the wounded also…Tianenmem needs to be remembered properly or it will continue to fester in the minds of millions of Chinese who are forbidden to speak of it and are actually afraid to discuss it — I have first hand experience of that — and maybe someday the beautiful daughter I have spoke of here in this post will be able to bear the pain of the Truth, and how her Dad was murdered, but she will be more proud than hurt with that terrible knowledge in the long run, as he died while promoting men and women’s personal freedom to express what they believe in without fear of persecution, or worse, under the iron hand of any tyrannical government anywhere on this Good Earth in which China itself is at present the brightest shining Jewel of human history and the best traditions mankind can offer, but misled by miscreants of
Thinkspeak. The truly amazing thing is that the People of China are driven and smart enough to negotiate such a Governement control and still come out striving and thriving toward the top of the human pile —

G. Gary Mantell

October 18, 2006 @ 3:01 am | Comment

If you criticize the government there openly in Chinese you can disappear in the night. 90 percent of the people there are dirt-poor peasants. Life is good for some, wretched for most, and whether the ecponomic miracle is sustainable remains to be seen. I love China, admire its progress and have great hopes for its future. But you sound like a shill for the PRC’s public relationsa firm.

October 18, 2006 @ 9:01 am | Comment

I was actually born in 1990 after the Tiananmen Square Massacre had already occured. But we studied China in my Modern History class and I have decided to do some personal research into the subject. I would just like to thank you for your perspective on the matter and say that I agree with you completely… and its ok to be emotional it means your human.

Thanks Again.

October 28, 2006 @ 7:01 pm | Comment

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