June 4th thread

About to visit the square as I did yesterday. Talk about anything that has to do with incidents that have occurred on past June Fourths, or anything else. And it’s hot here in Beijing today. A good day to wear white. Not to change the world, but just to show we think it’s better to remember than forget.

[Moving this up to the top of the page.]


Update: Just received this photo a friend took at the remembrance vigil in Hong Kong and had to share. People do care and do remember. They can’t wipe out everyone’s memory by pointing to the economy


“How could a peaceful protest lead to such chaos?”

Please go read this post that a commenter here just wrote on his own blog. Absolutely devastating. Then read some of his other posts about 6/4 and the day after. He’s been commenting here for a long time; very, very moving.

On another note, I just saw the NYT article about Tiananmen Square with a somewhat sensationalist headline and the tone annoyed me, as “swarmed” implies motion, activity – and there was none. It was just another nice day at the Square, except there were zillions of undercover police and everywhere. Obviously if you tried to bring in a big video camera they’d stop you, but they weren’t checking passports or bothering anybody that I could tell (nor have I heard of any reports of harassment). It confirmed what we already new: this day would pass like any other.

A better eyewitness account of a visit to the Square today can be found here. We were both there at the same time this morning and we agreed, the scene was remarkably harmonious.


Repost: Interview with a 1989 Demonstrator

In 2003, shortly after I left Beijing for Singapore, one of my clients mentioned to me his participation in the 1989 demonstrations as a student in Shanghai. As I listened to him talk, I realized I had an opportunity for an extraordinary interview. It’s always been my favorite post on this blog, for whatever that’s worth, and I wanted to repost it in honor of tomorrow’s anniversary. I wrote it originally for the now defunct Living in China website, and wish I could include the comments that were posted there six years ago.

The post was a turning point for me personally – the first time I really “got” how today’s Chinese view their government and what it did 20 years ago. For better or for worse, my friend David speaks for many Chinese. This post is as close as I’ve come to an actual case study of how China’s successful young professionals view one of the country darkest moments. I didn’t realize that at the time, but coming back drove the point home. It’s especially relevant right now, as everyobdy thinks back to that impossible moment in history.

Interview with a 1989 Demonstrator
December 17, 2003

Below is the interview I posted a few day’s ago on Living in China. It tells of the evolution of a former flag-waving protestor in the 1989 demonstrations in Shanghai. If you’ve ever looked back at the Tiananmen Square days and wondered what those students are doing and thinking today, you may find this interesting.

David S., 34, is now a prominent executive with a multinational technology company here in Singapore, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with him on his company’s public relations. When I heard that David played a part in Beijing’s sister demonstrations in Shanghai, I asked if I could interview him about the role he played and how he looks back on those days nearly 15 years later.

What made this so interesting for me was seeing the evolution of a 1989 demonstrator, from flag-waving rebel to a proud supporter of China and its government. It is a remarkable story.

Some of David’s viewpoints are quite different from my own, but that isn’t relevant. At the end, I offer a few of my own thoughts, but I don’t want to editorialize about which point of view is right or wrong.

Q. What brought you to the demonstrations in Shanghai?

It’s hard to understand this if you weren’t there, but it would have been abnormal for me not to go to the demonstrations. We all went, it was just natural. My classmates and I were swept up, we simply had to go, it was the natural thing to do. Suddenly, we were all participating.

You have to be aware of the situation in China at that time. It was as though there were two parallel systems, one being the economic system, the other the political system. These systems were like two wheels that weren’t on level ground, and along the way tension built up over a period of nearly 10 years, ever since Deng came back to power after the Cultural Revolution. That tension was tremendous, and no one could escape from it.

Chinese society consists of multiple layers – peasants, students, soldiers, factory workers. At that time, there was tension at every layer of the society. People were confused and frustrated. Earthquakes happen when different layers rub against each other at a different pace, and finally the earth can no longer contain the energy and it erupts. That’s the type of tension that was behind the protests.

So much about the economy had improved and was changing, but politics – the government – remained status quo. In the 1970s, if you said anything disrespectful of Mao, you’d be executed. In 1989, if you said something negative about Deng in public you could still be in serious trouble.

It was the students who were most sensitive to this. Our parents all worked for the state, and there was still little or no private enterprise. They were not as concerned about ideology and change. They only had to worry about feeding their families. But as students we were more liberal, more free-spirited and more engaged in ideologies. We weren’t concerned about raising a family. We were not necessarily practical; we were very idealistic.

Historically, most great movements in China were started by students. Even today, we celebrate China Youth Day on May 4th. That’s because when the KMT [Kuomintang] were still in power and the Communists were outlawed, the students demonstrated for the Communists on May 4th. General Tuan Qi Rui was the warlord over Beijing at the time and he opened fire on them in the street. So after the Communists took power they dedicated that day as the nation’s youth, which is still a holiday today.

Q. Where were you, and what was your own role?

I was studying medicine at the Shanghai Second Medical University, now a part of Fudan University. I was asked by my classmates to be the flag bearer because I’m quite tall, so my role was to carry the flag and wave it in front of the demonstrators. Every day we would march from the university campus all the way to the People’s Square, and I was in the front holding and waving the flag.

Q. Looking back, are you glad you did it? Do you have any regrets?

No, I don’t have regrets and I don’t think what we did was in vain. It was important for us to make our voice heard. For my generation, the crackdown had huge implications for our lives, probably like the JFK assassination had for Americans.

But I have to admit I am no longer interested in politics, especially now that China is undergoing a natural transition toward democracy, with the economy being the core and the catalyst for that change. And nothing can stop that change, no matter how much the Communists want to preserve their old values.

Q. We all know about the violent crackdown in Beijing. How was it handled in Shanghai?

There was nothing like the martial law that took place in Beijing. The Mayor of Shanghai at the time was extremely competent, and he made an appeal to the city on TV and he calmed everyone down. I’ll never forget, he said something that was ambiguous and politically brilliant: “Down the road, truth will prevail.” That could have meant he was sympathetic to the students or totally with the government. But it was very calming to hear him say it.

The mayor organized factory workers to clear the roads, not the army. These workers were the parents and uncles and aunts of the students. Some members of the student body tried to stir up these factory workers, and I think that was a very dangerous thing to do. Students demonstrating was one thing, but if it was factory workers – that would need to be stopped, and there would have been a riot. That’s why Beijing was much more tense.

Bringing in the factory workers truly showed the leadership and tact and common sense of Shanghai’s mayor – Zhu Rongji. Beijing is the political center, but Shanghai is the financial center, and it could absolutely not fall into chaos, no matter what. That’s why you saw factory workers and not the army.

Q. How did you hear of the massacre, and what effect did the news have?

My father and I heard about it on the radio, on ‘Voice of America’. That was the only source there was. Soon we all knew what had happened. We watched CCTV the next day. The reporters were wearing black and some of them were obviously in a deep state of grief, their eyes visibly red, as they announced that the anti-revolutionaries had been put down. I saw those reporters with my own eyes, and soon afterwards they were replaced.

At the moment the news broke of the crackdown, I was angry. How could it happen? All of the demonstrations were peaceful. How could they justify tanks and machine guns? I gave up all hope in my own government, and I felt ashamed to be Chinese. We were also disappointed in [then] President Bush – he was softer than we wanted. All that Bush did was impose sanctions, and that disappointed us. We were in a dilemma. We wanted the US and others to do something, but we also knew that would have hurt us.

That was part of being 20 years old in China when you haven’t seen the world, no Hollywood movies, you’ve only read Stalin-style textbooks. I matured ten years overnight, and I also became a little cynical.

For so many years China had a stringently controlled educational system. From kindergarten to college, we all read the exact same books and took the exact same exams. We always believed everything that the government told us, and they told us it was an honor for ‘the people without property’ to shed their blood and sacrifice their lives for the cause of communism, fighting against the two great enemies, the Nationalists [KMT] and the Capitalists. We were brainwashed.

After Tiananmen Square, most of us believed that all government was evil. We saw that our government would kill us. I remember how my aunt told me she went to the Tiananmen Square area shortly after the crackdown and there was someone saying through a megaphone that there had never been any shooting even though she could see the bullet holes on the walls, which were soon cleaned up.

But now, that sense of shame is gone. When I look at it all objectively, I believe the government did the right thing. Maybe they didn’t do it the right way. I still have reservations about the tanks and the machine guns. But at that time they couldn’t afford to sit down and negotiate. The students wanted power, and in 1989 the social cohesion wasn’t there to support that. It was only 10 years after the Gang of Four, and it wasn’t like today. In retrospect, Deng at that time couldn’t afford to show further weakness. He had to hold the country together. Yes, we paid the price in blood, but we are still one country, one nation.

You have to realize that Deng changed my life – everybody’s life. He opened new doors for all of us. In 1982, my mother was among the first batch of scholars who were sent abroad to study, and she went to Harvard. She returned to become the director of a major Shanghai hospital. So we are grateful. And soon so many other changes happened.

I feel a great respect for our leaders. There are some, like Li Peng, who I still have no respect for. But Deng – soon we felt as though he had torn down the Berlin Wall. I wondered, if Deng had not handled the demonstrations the way he did would China be the country it is today? The whole nation is changing and people are more affluent, and I feel proud of being Chinese. People once looked down at us, and now they have respect for us.

Q. But what Deng achieved – could he not have done it within a more democratic system? Did there have to be the ruthlessness?

After going to the US for five or six years, I saw that the level of democracy there can only happen in a society with a certain level of education. What the people of China now need is leadership. China is one century behind the US, and you can’t expect us to change that fast.

This is why many Asians resent it when Americans try to insist that the Chinese adopt their style of democracy. Shanghai may be ready, but if you go out to the surrounding areas, you’ll see it just isn’t possible, that it will take more time. I believe that one day, China will have Taiwan-style democracy, but it has to be built on a strong economy.

Q. I agree that Western-style democracy isn’t right for China today. But can’t there be a compromise? Can’t the government be strong, without tolerating abuse of the poor by corrupt officials, without tolerating the marginalization of AIDS victims, without arresting kids who write about government reform on the Internet?

The way we view human rights is so different from the West’s. We have 1.3 billion people and many of them go hungry. Putting food on the table and a roof over its people’s heads is what our government has to worry about. AIDS, corruption, the Internet – that is all secondary to the leadership of 1.3 billion people. If I were running China today, I would not be able to hear all the different parties. I would have to have my own agenda and stick to that agenda. I believe that if a secret vote were held today most people in China would vote for the CCP.

For more than 150 years, starting with the Opium Wars, our national pride has been bullied by the Europeans, the Russians, then the Japanese. Now China is an economic and a military power. And it has no intentions of being aggressive. So I am not giving up my Chinese citizenship. Ten years ago I would have jumped to do that.

Looking back, I firmly believe the government did the right thing, though they could have handled it better. We paid a high price. Our leaders in 1989 could have shown greater human skills and greater negotiating skills. But let’s live with Communism for now and change things one thing at a time. The Chinese now have a much better life than they did 100 years ago. Not so long ago, my house was the first in our hutong to have a television set. The whole neighborhood would come to our backyard and sit on the ground to watch. It was just a 9-inch TV, and we put a large magnifying glass in front of it so everyone could see – that is how inventive we Chinese had to be. And now, so many families have two color TVs. They enjoy a better life, they have pride, they just put a man into space. Over the next couple of decades, China will probably overtake Japan. The world now needs China as much as we need them.

Thank you, David.

This was definitely an eye-opening interview for me. Coming from my own background where the rights of the individual are sacred, I was intrigued to hear such a different point of view. As readers familiar with my writing know, I am not quite so easy on the CCP, and don’t feel all can be forgiven under the mantra, Change must take place slowly. But I have the highest respect for David, and find the story of his transformation and his great personal success to be impressive and inspiring.


The Tiananmen Taboo

Quite simply one of the best articles I’ve ever read about the June 4 “incident,” by banned Chinese author Ma Jian. It includes a brief interview with a participating PLA soldier, and a heart-wrenching account of a man in the crowd:

“It happened right here,” he told me, “just by these white railings. A tank charged down Changan Avenue, and sprayed tear gas into the air. There was a big crowd of us. We were coughing and choking. We rushed on to the pavement, and I was squashed back against these railings. A girl dropped to her knees. I was grasping the railings with one hand to stop myself falling and with the other I offered her a handkerchief and told her to use it as a mask. Just as I was leaning over to hand it to her, another tank roared up and careered into us. Thirteen people were crushed to death but I only lost my arm. The tank commander knew exactly what he was doing.” He stared down at the patch of asphalt at his feet and then glanced nervously at the police vans parked on the other side of the road. It was rush hour; cars and taxis were streaming past us.

What a terrifying experience, I said, gripping the white railings.

“Yes, it was,” he replied quite calmly. “But I wasn’t truly afraid until I saw Deng Xiaoping on television, telling the martial law troops: ‘Foreigners say that we opened fire, and that I admit, but to claim that army tanks drove over unarmed citizens, that is a disgraceful slur.’ My scalp tightened. I was a living witness to the truth. What if one day they came to get me? … For two years I never dared go out at night, I never spoke about what happened. Policemen came to interrogate me almost every day, but none of us ever mentioned the tanks. Every anniversary of 4 June, the police would come to my house with pillows and mattresses and sleep on my bedroom floor. Just to stop me speaking to foreign journalists.”

As the sun began to set, we retreated into a restaurant. I stared out at the darkening walls of the Zhongnanhai compound and thought of the government leaders inside sitting down for a family meal in their sumptuous villas, their cats and dogs scampering around their feet.

Liu Hua turned to me and said, “Those bloody Communists! What right did they have to take my arm from me? If they don’t apologise for the crackdown and offer justice for the victims, I’ll take them to the courts!”

“Be sure to keep all your evidence and medical records safe,” I said. “The day of reckoning is bound to come.” I’m always surprised by how much faith the Chinese place in the legal system. In a country that has no rule of law, our only weapon in the fight for justice is the strength of our convictions.

Stories like this and so many others I’ve been reading this week help dispel a myth that some revisionists are trying very hard to propagate, namely that the shootings took place mainly in self-defense as mobs of enraged workers tried to murder police officers and PLA soldiers. And that did happen in a few places on a very limited scale, but that violence was not representative of the demonstrations. Most of the rounds were fired directly at peaceful, innocent people who wanted to make their country better (and yes, there were some idiots among them, as there are likely to be whenever you are dealing with that many people). Those who fell can’t be forgotten. The fact that the government ordered this can’t be forgotten.

Someone raised the question on Twitter this afternoon – ironically shortly before the blockade – whether angry bloggers and people who will wear white shirts on Thursday and twitterers and others making noise about the anniversary really believe they’ll make a difference. I guess I can only speak for myself, but that question never really comes up when I blog. This is just a way for me to articulate my feelings. Maybe I know I won’t change anything, but exercising my right to self expression and putting my feelings down “on paper” and sharing them with others is a fundamental freedom and, for me at least, helps to clarify things and hopefully may even lead to new perspectives and new knowledge (I’ve learned a lot from some of my commenters, and from the incredible people this blog has brought into my life). Tiananmen Square, however distant it is from the memories of the Chinese people, is still an important event, a significant moment in China’s history and one that mustn’t be erased. By contributing to the dialogue I have no illusions about effecting change, but it’s better than silence, at least for me. And I’ll be wearing white on Thursday, if only because it will make people think.



Twitter blocked in China

Michael Anti was certainly prophetic.

Twitter is a new thing in China. The censors need time to figure out what it is. So enjoy the last happy days of twittering before the fate of Youtube descends on it one day.


Seemed as if 50 percent of the tweets recently have been about Tiananmen Square. I guess this was inevitable.

Update: Hotmail was blocked late this afternoon as well, and I can’t get onto Bing either. These could be entirely unrelated things, perhaps just a server issue or odd coincidence or…. We all know how erratic and irrational and unpredictable the Chinese Internet can be. That said, I’m suspicious as hell.

Oh, Flickr, too.

Update, Wednesday 11.30Am: Hotmail works now.

From today’s Times:

The South China Morning Post, an English-language newspaper based in Hong Kong that has frequently featured articles on Tiananmen and other sensitive issues, has also seen its distribution on the Chinese mainland curbed in advance of the anniversary on Thursday. And some Beijing readers of last weekend’s edition of The International Herald Tribune discovered that an inside page of the newspaper with an article on the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan religious leader, was missing.

The anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, in which army troops killed hundreds of student demonstrators, workers and ordinary citizens, is one of a series of politically sensitive dates this year that have provoked sweeping security measures by Chinese officials.

In recent days, the government has detained a number of political dissidents seen as threats to public order during the anniversary period, including one who had released an open letter complaining about economic hardship visited on former Tiananmen demonstrators who were jailed after the crackdown.

While Hotmail is back, Bling is still down. The Times piece says Microsoft’s Live.com wasn’t working.