June 4

That time of year again. I remember my rage back in 1989. It was the first time I ever watched CNN, and I was glued to the TV set although I knew next to nothing about China at the time. I remember my shock at Bush I’s “punishment” of the dictators with blood on their hands – some all but meaningless sanctions. The man who stood up against the tank, the stranger who entered all of our living rooms and shook the conscience of the world. The moment of hope, when it seemed to so many of us that the students were really going to make a difference and force their corrupt leaders to reform. No one imagined the idealistic young men and women would be greeted with live ammunition, shot dead in the streets like animals.

Nearly 20 years later it seems so far away, so distant. But not at all forgotten. At least not for me. Talking with my Chinese friends in Beijing, it also seems so irrelevant, something they would rather not acknowledge let alone dwell upon. I only really began to understand the Chinese perspective on the tragedy five years ago when I held an extensive conversation with an actual demonstrator. His words sounded so strange to me. He had gone to demonstrate, to actively protest against his government, and now he looks upon the massacre as a practical and necessary business decision. Painful to make at the time but ultimately good for the country. And I believe it’s safe to say that his opinion is in line with that of most young Chinese people today. There is almost a sense of gratitude for what the government did, saving them from the anarchy that consumed Russia in its rush to democratize. Preserving the harmony that allowed the economic miracle to rise to undreamed of height. Surely it was all for the best, and your heart has to go out to the poor officials forced to make such a difficult decision.

I understand his argument, and I understand why my Chinese colleagues across the board tow the line on this topic. Many months ago I gave up hope of having a rational discussion with them on topics like this. The last time I tried was about two weeks ago, when I argued with a beloved colleague about whether Mao had been good for China or bad. When I recited the litany of his sins, which are nearly as bountiful as Hitler’s, I got the tape recorded message that still, he was good for China. You know, seventy percent and all that. At least now I understand why she says that.

If you read my other posts on Tiananmen Square, you’ll know I don’t see the students as angels. Nothing is ever that simple. Nor were the party’s players all devils. Forces inside the party were grating against each other and…well, no sense in restating what most of us know. For me, the bottom line was that the party showed us just how ruthless and obsessed with self-preservation they were, not that there was ever much doubt. And for that, I can never forgive them, even if their own people can. I see what they are doing today, stopping parents who lost children to the Sichuan earthquake from demonstrating, and I remind myself that for all the steps forward, theirs is still an authoritarian government that can easily morph into a totalitarian police state when it feels threatened. The script is so similar; all of our hopes were raised when we saw the relative media transparency the state was allowing in the earthquake’s coverage. It didn’t take long to bring us all back down to earth.

And so we can wring our hands and complain and blog and point out the hypocrisy and the two-facedness and the outright badness. But as long as the Chinese people refuse to call the government to account or even to acknowledge its selfish intentions, like my friend who insists Mao was a net plus for China, meaningful political reform will remain minimal and painfully slow. Some uplifting spurts forward, some painful setbacks. It’s gotten better, as the cliche goes, but let’s not fool ourselves: if a similar threat were to arise now or in the future, those in power would be willing to replay the ‘incident” all over again. Reluctantly, for sure, but in the end it would be “the best thing for China.”

I’m in America for my last vacation before the fall. I know I’ve disappointed a lot of readers with the sparse posting, and no one is more depressed than I am at the inanity of some of the recent comment threads. I simply feel I have no choice. A lot of emails have gone unanswered and a lot of topics I’ve been dying to post about have gone unwritten. That’s the best I can do for now, and it won’t get better until the autumn. Let me just close by saying my work has involved me in the relief efforts for the children displaced and orphaned by the earthquake, and no matter how the government may have infuriate me in recent days, and no matter how frustrated I feel with Chinese friends who refuse to see the world as i do, the rush to help and sacrifice and give has been one of the most inspiring and moving things I’ve ever seen. As usual with China, a flood of contrary emotions collide, from tearful joy at the selflessness and generosity of the people to anger and impatience at the cruelty of some in the government to indignation over the corruption that allowed the schools to crumble. Each of these emotions is equally legitimate, and one does not invalidate the other.

Update: And let’s not forget, the TSM remains the most taboo subject in China. And for good reason.


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 116 Comments

test comment

June 8, 2008 @ 12:49 am | Comment

mor, I only banned nanhe once, for about a week. Wayne’s comment is far worse and I won’t tolerate it. He’s out. If he wants to come back in a few months I’ll let him, maybe – but he will have to be a lot nicer and less of a troll. The vermin remark tells me he is just here to antagonize and not to contribute.

June 8, 2008 @ 1:16 am | Comment

Richard, the remark above was directed at certain commenters who cry foul every time somebody makes what they perceive as anti-Chinese comments, but obviously don’t mind the kind of language trolls like Wayne use.

June 8, 2008 @ 1:27 am | Comment

can be more useful and desirable than democracy.

America certainly believes this, because they killed Patrice Lumumba, deposed Salvador Allende, and supported Rhee, Jiang, and Papa Doc usually against the will of their “electorates”.

In Korea they are still digging up mass graves from the immediate post-war era. So do you hate America or do you love fascism and murder?

June 8, 2008 @ 1:58 pm | Comment

Speak of the devil …

June 8, 2008 @ 5:43 pm | Comment

OK, I’ll admit my post was a troll trap, but I’m not ashamed, since you’d have to be a troll to get caught.

Still, I did not expect wayne to jump into it headfirst, even if it proves my point about the possiblity of a real discussion. But hey, it’s nothing new, how many times have you seen guys like Wayne, ‘specially on the net? How often have they surprised you by being just a little more than the stubborn kind they seem bound to be? But who knows, that happens, from time to time.

In France we are – kinda – reminiscing May ’68. If you don’t know exactly what it’s about, I won’t bring you up to date now, it’s just that I’ve learned one thing : in a town (not Paris), the prefect was ready to order shooting at the demonstrators – who basicallly wanted to turn the university into a, well, free-love f*ckfest. De Gaulle told him not to (before sneaking in Germany to ask for military help just in case…), still the uptight bastard was waiting for the straw to break the camel’s back. Well, good news, nobody was shot, and France didn’t plummet back into the Bronze Age either.

The thing is, there are always guys like this, who will step up and protect what they believe in, which is the right to shoot people for not behaving the way they should. Order before justice – and some knid of subconscious comment on their virility, IMHO.

Let’s just hope we stop putting them in position where they can make this sort of decisions.

June 9, 2008 @ 5:22 pm | Comment

Also, I think what bothers Richard – and it certainly bothers me, is that these robotic answers (“they were right in protecting China from chaos”) are a posteriori judgments, and as such, they are simply the victor’s version.

Let’s say Mao never succeeded in gaining power, then every repressive action against his movement would be justified. After all, wasn’t he about to bring chaos to China? Yet from this chaos stemmed a new order, like it or not. Let’s say the Beijing students took over and became bloodthirsty despots, their version would be: “yes, we did shed blood because of the ruthlessness of our adversaries, but in the end, we prevailed and bestowed order on this great country. This temporary chaos was the price to pay to move forward”.

With this logic, you can switch the subjects to your heart’s content, the resulting phrases will all sound alike: this is the same logic. Vae victis.

June 9, 2008 @ 8:59 pm | Comment

There is simply no logic in arguing for the government’s actions in this case, as anyone who is not transfixed by state power can realize. Those who want to rationalize the Tiananmen Massacre are no different from the Red Guards of the past in that they allow ideology to override common sense and even basic human compassion.
If the Chinese government were to reverse the verdict on tiananmen (which will of course never happen under current conditions), would any of these people still be arguing in support of the government’s actions? Of course not. They are simply being led on by despots with the people’s blood on their hands.

June 10, 2008 @ 11:33 pm | Comment

I worked with a Political Science graduate from Beijing University who was riding his bike around Tianamen to check the situation out. He told me he supported the military action as the proper response by the legal authorities and his argument was that anarchy would have prevailed otherwise. He based his insights on the idea of warlordism. He felt Tianamen was a provocation to bring down the CCP and plunge the nation into civil war.
Now Eric Hoffer in his book “The Ordeal of Change” mentions that the most dangerous moment for a totalitarian system is the moment it begins to reform. It becomes very difficult he says for that system to go part way or change back to brutality and so revolution from within breaks out. Deng had to ally himself more tightly with the PLA to crush the rebellion and I suspect China is like the United States a hybrid state of military/civilian rule.

June 11, 2008 @ 12:20 pm | Comment

If you want to know the truth about events in recent Chinese history, be sure to ask a Political Science graduate from Beijing University. I guess that’s what Yang Rui does, too.

June 11, 2008 @ 9:12 pm | Comment

The same people who are most outraged by Sharon stone’s comments are also the quickest to turn around and rationalize the cold-blooded killing of their countrymen.

June 11, 2008 @ 11:45 pm | Comment

There is still a lot of ignorance about the causes of the 1989 demonstrations. Ignorance about soaring inflation and cuts to student subsidies. Ignorance about corruption. Ignorance about banners reading “We want the Communist Party to lead us CORRECTLY.”

* Hu Yaobang’s death was a trigger, nothing more.

* The Goddess of Democracy was suggested by a Western journalist (“You need some sort of symbol, like the Statute of Liberty. Something to galvanize the media.”)

* Democracy was a late, and minor demand by the protesters.

June 12, 2008 @ 9:07 am | Comment

Who was the Western journalist? Phil Cunningham?

June 12, 2008 @ 2:54 pm | Comment


I do not know what you are talking about regarding Gary Locke. First off, he was governor of Washington State, not Oregon. I lived in Washington during his election and during his tenure and I never once heard a single anti-Chinese comment made about him or even about such a comment. Not saying such comments were not made, but to make it seem they were prevalent is unfair. I will also note that there have been many Chinese-American (and Korean-American and Phillipino-American politicians) in this area. In fact, one old-time one just died, Ruby Chow. Richard is right that there is some racism in the United States but unless you define a racist country as one where there is some racism, I take great issue with all those who call the US a racist country.

I am not going to deny past incidents (slavery, segregation, mistreatment of Native Americans that continues to this day, the Japanese internment, mistreatment of Chinese, etc.), but we are constantly improving and I am proud (but not satisfied) of where we are today.

But the US is not the issue here and attempts to make it so are just a diversion. June 4 stands on its own and certainly any US history or US present should be and is irrelevant on how we judge June 4.

June 13, 2008 @ 3:03 pm | Comment

[…] I clicked on the link this morning to my recent post on June 4, I was surprised when the page failed to load properly. It stopped loading after the first 15 […]

June 16, 2008 @ 8:33 am | Pingback

[…] memorials, and other essays and thoughts can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and […]

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