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.


The Discussion: 43 Comments

The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
      History to the defeated
May say alas but cannot help or pardon.

— W.H. Auden, “Spain”

June 3, 2009 @ 1:01 am | Comment

Thank you for this post.

Too many people have submitted to the idea that if an action’s intended result is not immediate and apparent, its not worth doing. Maybe it’s a result our hyper-consumerist/comsumptionist ideas of immediate satisfaction, or maybe it’s just born out of pessimism, but either way, it’s negative and defeating.

It always has been and always will be important to simply give a shit. Especially when that means educating yourself and others while you’re at it.

June 3, 2009 @ 1:12 am | Comment

Ma Jian presents his perspective well. He’s one of many Chinese, like Liu Hua, permanently scarred by the events of 1989. At the end of the day, I respect his opinion as much as I respect the opinion of any of the other 1.3 billion Chinese… or at least the tens of millions of Chinese who’re as informed about 6/4 as Ma Jian claims to be.

By the way, I happened to be in Tiananmen during the August Olympics as well. I don’t seem to remember many days where it was “empty”… just another reflection of his liberal use of poetic license.

I don’t think many people believe the PLA fired *only* in self-defense. I think many people believe the PLA fired in order to enforce martial law, against an increasingly radicalized mob that had no intention of ever clearing the square.

The debate should never be about what happened the night of June 3rd… that was only the bloody culmination of a car crash set in motion weeks prior. The healthy debate in the Chinese community is about the events that led up to June 3rd. The healthy debate is whether the night could have been avoided, and what the consequences of other policy decisions would have been.

The debate is simply, in the weeks before June 4th, should the government have “given in” to idealistic student protesters who knew nothing about democracy (as those familiar with the student movement would freely admit), and yet demanded nothing less than total submission? Many former June 4th veterans have opinions different from *yours*, on this point.

June 3, 2009 @ 1:35 am | Comment

Of course there are some people who will say that a few lost arms or lives is an acceptable price for Chinese people to pay if it helps make their government more powerful. No doubt we’ll hear from them soon enough, but I wonder if they ever do more than post on the Internet. It would take quite some nerve say what they say face to face to someone like Liu Hua.

June 3, 2009 @ 2:07 am | Comment

An interesting detail that I noticed in a CDT piece on a signatory of Charter 08’s recent conversations over ‘tea’ with MSS agents – the guys from the MSS were using language (‘anti-China’ media, etc.) which could have been pulled from the pages of, they referred to AIDS prevention and environmental protection as ‘sensitive areas’, they ape the talk of people like Charles Liu about foreign NGOs – it is all very familiar. This detail in particular was interesting:

“He went on to ask about my educational background and the name of the college I graduated from.

“The college is not well-known. You wouldn’t know it even if I tell you its name,” I said.

I told him the name. They had not heard of it, as I expected. So they requested me to write it down, as well as the years during which I was studying there. I did all that.

“Which high school did you go to?” he asked. I wrote the name down. “From which year to which year?” I put that down, as well as my middle school years, and I explained to them, “I went to the same school for my secondary education.”

There was a year I wrote down that caught their eye, and they read it out. “1989?” I didn’t care what they said. “Relax. I didn’t participate in any movements back them. I didn’t see anything. I know nothing about it.”

“How come you don’t know anything about it?” The Leather Jacket said in disbelief.

Yes, a middle school student would at least watch the movements back then, even if he didn’t take part in it. But I didn’t even watch them. I have to tell people the geographical location of my school to explain this. “My school is located in the suburbs, instead of the city,” I said. I draw a circle in the air with my hand. “It’s surrounded by rural areas. It’s a few kilometers away even from the closest town. It’s quite remote and closed off from the outside world. We students all lived on campus. We could read newspapers at school, and watch TV only on weekends when we were home. The information in the papers and TV was what the government wanted us to know. Thus I don’t know anything about it, until I found out about what really happened from the Internet in recent years.”

Fortunately he didn’t go on to ask me “What happened then?”. I wouldn’t have answered even if he had asked. This question should not be answered by me, someone who had been kept in the dark for 18 years. It should be answered by those who experienced it themselves. “

This also was interesting:

“Which website did you see the Charter 08 on then?”

“I don’t remember.”

”How come you can’t remember it?”

“Of course I can’t remember it. I never pay attention to the name of the websites when I browse articles online.”

“How did you know about the Charter then?”

“Through the Internet as well. I saw a message saying that Xiaobo was arrested at first. Then someone said that he was arrested because of the Charter 08 issue. I was curious to know what Charter 08 was exactly. So I searched for it. A lot of web pages had been deleted at that time, but there were ones that I could still access. That was how I got it.”

“Then what did you do?”

“I thought that I agreed with the statements on it after I read it. But I didn’t plan to sign it at first. Because,” I said grudgingly, “because in a country like ours it is risky to do things like that.”

That I have been summoned by the police is part of the risk.

All such efforts are worthwhile. None are as wasted as you might presume. Those who are willing to hear will hear, and those who are willing to read will read. No dictatorship however violent or oppressive, or however subtle and needling, can prevent it.

June 3, 2009 @ 2:35 am | Comment

@Jason Sch
Yeah,it’s important to give a shit,but when it hit the fan,you need to prepare for some consequences. :\ At least we finally got some proper riot police and LTL equipments after 6.4 and don’t need to call the army anymore to deal with similar situations later on.

June 3, 2009 @ 2:46 am | Comment

“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. ”

With several hundred people died, do you really think it is important to pinpoint who was shot where in a curfew? What military curfew could mean?

For government, we need to know who/when/why made the order to have curfew and then have troops to clean out the place?

For students, we need to know who/when/why made the call to refuse to compromise and fight curfew. Who/when have shaped the movement direction?

The decision to fight a military curfew is essentially a call for blood. I have not seen any meaningful research to investigate what made this tragedy innevitable and how to prevent it from happening again.

June 3, 2009 @ 3:45 am | Comment

Ma Jian is one of those exiles that have to live off on West handouts for the last 20 years and could only repay with his anti-China gigs. It is really a sad story, from the cultural elite of the 80s to an anti-China running dog living in the West.

Mr. Ma belongs to and is a fossil of 80s, an ear long gone in China but somehow still fresh and vivid to many Westerners. Westerner are still romanticizing and dreaming about the China of 80s and become frustrated and angry that China refused to take their freedom and democracy snake oil.

Mr. Ma reminds me of the woman in the movie Sunset Blvd.

June 3, 2009 @ 4:07 am | Comment

It is indeed an interesting article. There’s a lot out on Tiananmen – hard to pick the wheat from the chaff.

June 3, 2009 @ 4:14 am | Comment

Richard, Glad to see you’re still serving up Peking Duck! As thought provoking as always.But, you can only lift the torch. You cannot make fools see.

June 3, 2009 @ 4:54 am | Comment

Interesting article, but feels like the author is trying too hard to squeeze the drama out of every scene. The story is good enough as it is. When people trying to dramatize it, i feel I am being manipulated.

Reading about a man who built his career on the tragedy of his people (TAM) and his family (his brother) made more move uncomfortably in my seat. Don’t know why. It’s an instinct.

June 3, 2009 @ 7:37 am | Comment

I just googled my way to your blog using the key word “twitter blockage”, so literally I cannot say much about it, except for its name really strikes me as yummy and its blogger humble and gracious.

Just my two cents:has anyone ever considered about the possibility that the opposite of the truth might also be true? To wit, although the memoir of the poor guy who lost his arm in the protest can very well be accurate and unbiased, it cannot necessarily lead us to the conclusion that the then-gov of China masterminded the whole crackdown on the innocent protesting people and is not feeling any remorse. It could very well be the PLA generals or other highly-ranked officers who misunderstood the order from the gov that ruthlessly asked their subordinates to pull the trigger and career the tanks into the crowd.Deng, as the President of China the, might as well be blinded to the truth.

As far as Ma Jian’s work concerns, I have to sincerely acknowledge that I’ve read none and bear no interest in reading any in the future, not for their particularly obvious and unproportionate focus on politics or the bias-prone social study methods employed in them,but for my personal belief that dwelling in the past simply will not help make any constructive progress in the contemporary Chinese society. And usually it does not take a smart person to figure out what went wrong here in China. If Mr.Ma someday offers any solutions to all the things he dreaded about China over the decades, I’d be more than willing to give it a read. After all, nothing is easier than setting up an antagonist and stab it to death. If Mr.Ma is a person who bears obvious ill will towards this country,he’s absolutely doing a very good job.

June 3, 2009 @ 8:17 am | Comment

Stuff like this is ultimately pretty simple. If the government did nothing wrong, then why suppress accounts of what happened? Why not fully investigate the matter, in the open and let the people judge for themselves?

When a government tries to suppress the truth, it means they are afraid of it. That applies to democracies as well as authoritarian systems.

Sure, you can make a case that the state should maintain some secrets in the interests of security, but go too far down that road and you end up with a state that thinks it requires secrecy in order to maintain itself.

What is the justification for covering up what happened here? What “state secrets” would be jeopardized?

Citizens aren’t children who need to be protected from reality.

June 3, 2009 @ 8:27 am | Comment


I was not contending at all the ” the gov has done nothing wrong’,my point would be more appropriately summoned up as the lawless, reprehensible conduct carried out by armed force might not be out of the will of the then-gov. Besides attributing the fault to the highest leaders like Deng, some people never seriously reckoned on other way less sensational possibilities that have not been ruled out or disapproved by the historical records like Mr.Ma’s books.And I do doubt if the highest authority of CCP publicly and clearly made the order to resort to violence in a way that we now see in all those photos.

And I do concur with a point that you didn’t make very clear about–that this is a country operating and sustaining on secrecy, otherwise so many censorships wouldn’t be required. And it’s a undeniable fact that it is still operating, in its own mysteriously surreal way. This is a way too mysterious nation that as a Chinese, for many times I fail to construe why some of the things appearing doomed to fail pan out working, and some of other with carefully premeditated plans and successful experiences in the western world turned out to be jokes. If you live long enough in China, I believe you will definitely come to a point where you feel so hopeless and frustrated but to succumb to that fact that “It’s China”.

June 3, 2009 @ 9:41 am | Comment

Sensationalism sells, that’s the problem Western Media. Idiots like Ma Jian have to resort to write fiction to make his point.

June 3, 2009 @ 10:15 am | Comment

Luckily there’s no sensationalism in the Chinese media. And this isn’t sensationalism, it’s history. It did happen, there are countless reports of it by generally reliable witnesses including good friends of the CCP. Now, exactly how or why it happened and the exact statistics about the results may not be clear, but none of those questions, which only the party can address, alter the fact that many people were killed and injured in a gruesome bloodbath on and around June 4.

June 3, 2009 @ 10:22 am | Comment

I Believe That Freedom Is Correlated With Resources

Recently, Jackie Chen said in public that “I believe that we Chinese need to be controlled, we cannot be too free, otherwise the society will be too chaotic”. This statement of course received heavy critcism from any rightists and intellecutals. Their main critcism is that they think that some freedoms such as freedom of religion, speech, news, are considered “basic human right”, and cannot be violated.

This post wants to say that all freedoms, regardless of type, are correlated with resources. Generally speaking, more resources will result in more freedoms, and vice versa. Freedoms will increase as resources increase, and vice versa. This simply cannot be helped. If resources are completed depleted, then freedoms will be completely eliminated.

Let’s first talk about breathing. We all agree that “freely breathing the air on the earth” is a “non-debatable” human right. But where is this freedom based on? Well, this freedom is based on nothing but the resource of air on earth. We have so much air on earth that we do not need to ration it, and do no need to discuss how to distribute air to everyone. If air is not so abundant, then it could be a different story….

For example, if one day we moved to Mars, and the air on Mars is too thin to be breathed. So there are factories built on Mars to produce breathable air, and the resultant air is distributed in bottles. Under this situation, air becomes a product, and there’ll be companies competing to produce air. Some air is high quality that only rich people can afford to buy. The low quality air will cause great damage to people’s health and will shorten people’s lives by 20 years, but they are cheap, so the poor people can only buy those air to breathe. Under this scenario, “breathing air freely” is no longer a “sacred” human right. It comes an economic question of “air distribution”

Now let’s talk about the resources behind a type freedom most rightists are excited about: freedom of speech. Let me first divide freedom of speech into two parts: 1) Producing sound with one’s vocal cord 2) Writing things down on paper.

Let’s first talk about producing sounds: if you are living in a mountain alone, then you can produce as much sound for as long as you want, because in the mountain the sound will not travel far enough to affect others. But if you are in a movie theater, then the sounds you produce will definitely affect others. Why? That’s because sound waves interfere with eath other in the air. In other words, the space of the medium (in this case, air) determines the abundance of your resource. The space inside a theater is devoted to transmitting the sound from the movie, and is shared by everyone in the theater. If you speak loudly, then you are disrupting that shared space, and therefore it’s equal to damaging public property. Therefore, this is also a case of “resource distribution”. Same scenario applies to living in a dorm with many roommates, it limits your “freedom to make any sound you want”.

Now, what about press freedom? Well, press freedom is even more dependent on resources, it depends on money, on the staff you can hire, on your broadcasting equipment, on your news room, on your buildings, on the quality of your microphone, etc etc etc.

Now, you may ask, “Ok, but what about freedom of ideas? Freedom of mind? Don’t tell me freedom of ideas and mind is also dependent on resources!” Well, I’m sorry to dissapoint you, but freedom of ideas very much depends on resources. You use your brain to come up with ideas, right? Are brain cells not a type of resource? Brain is just a type of computer for yourself. If you use your brain to think about this thing, then you won’t have time to think about that thing. If you are forced to think about what to wear tomorrow, you will not have time to solve the math problem for tomorrow, and vice versa. So of course freedom of ideas is also a “resource distribution” problem.

If a social group has enough power to bombard a type of idea/product to the society, and it forces people to think about that ideas/product all the time, it’ll basically occupy the brain resource of the people, and cause great misuse of the brain of the people. This can be called Propaganda. Propaganda is just a way to occupy the brain resouces of others and cause them to misuse it. There are many famous examples of propaganda in the world, such as CNN, Voice of America, BBC, Microsoft, etc.

Now, we come to freedom of religion. That of course depends on resources as well. No one is born to have a certain faith. And there are those who have no faith for their entire lives. And those who switch faith 50 times during their lives. It takes time to accept a type of faith. It’s impossible for you to believe in Communism after only talking to a Communist for 2 minutes. It takes a certain amount of information for someone to accept a certain faith. When someone is young, it takes approximately 500Mb of information feeding from a certain faith for him to accept it. So basically whichever faith group has more money to send massive information to people will have a higher chance of getting believers. So the reason Christianity is so powerful today is simply because Christianity has enough money to bombard others with information and occupy and interfere with their brain resources.

Now, some people believe that “freedom of faith is a basic human right”. But this sentence is very illogical. If there’s freedom of fatih, the can my faith be “No freedom to believe in any religion”. That is, it is against my faith believe in any religion. Should you respect that? If faith is such a sacred thing, then if there’s a country that is based on the faith of “no religion”, then can that country attack a Christian-based country to defend the faith of “no religion”? Is the faith of “no religion” equally sacred as the faith of “Christianity”, under the principles of freedom of faith? That illogicity has never been answered by people.

The above basically says that all types of freedom are correlated with the abundance of resources. Resouces can also be called wealth. So, freedom is positively correlated with wealth. All human activities attempt to increase wealth, because increased wealth leads to increased freedom. But people’s reproductive abilities are very high, this causes the society to become very crowded, and that leads to a reduction in resources, which in turn leads to a reduction in freedom. This simply cannot be helped. In other words, the more crowded a society is, the more likely people will interfere with each other when they practice their freedoms. And as a result, such crowded societies need the support of public services and public policy making. For example, roads: a non-crowded society does not need road management, and does not need red-green lights. But a crowded society needs road management, traffic police, etc etc.

Is freedom important? Well yes it is. But if all we do is propagandizing about the benefits of freedom without researching the correlated question of “resource distribution”, then this type of propaganda is very unhealthy to society.

June 3, 2009 @ 10:34 am | Comment

I should have known this would bring Math out of his tortoise shell. Your “logical” argument about faith could offer final proof that you are indeed some twisted form of artificial intelligence set up by a couple of bored grad students at Stanford.

June 3, 2009 @ 11:30 am | Comment


“Has anyone ever considered about the possibility that the opposite of the truth might also be true?”

Maybe so. Maybe if the government authorized a commision into discovering exaclty what went wrong, we might be able to consider this possibility. But as it stands, we have no way of answering your question, and at this point many of the people who could have answered it have passed on.

What I don’t understand about your logic, is you present all these unanswered and unanswerable questions as a basis for promoting general ignorance of the events. Wouldn’t you rather have those questions answered? “Well the opposite could be true” Yeah, maybe, but you have no way of proving it, so isn’t it kind of useless to ask us to “consider” it. Basically, you’re asking us to consider whether your imaginative justifications for the conclusion of 6/4 have any validity, and then conclude based on your fantasy of unconfirmed assumptions about “what could have happened” that we should give up on discovering the truth “for the good of contemporary Chinese society”. Personally I would rather try to prove my fantasy correct, by actually delving into the fact, but if you want to “believe” that it “could have” happened and base your judgment of these events on that…well, strange, but whatever.

I think it is important to remember that even if some people here “refuse” to remember 6/4, they are surrounded by its influence. It basically established a precedent that the government and the Party are the true”owners” of the Chinese people (and not the other way around), that no man truly owns his own destiny in its most complete sense because when push comes to shove, the government will use all means necessary to protect its own interests before the interests of its people.

In its justification, we see the political sensibilities of contemporary China born. The idea that stability should be preserved without deference to justice, the idea that the Chinese people are too “immature” to become independent political actors, and the idea that politics and history are better left to be created by politicians and academics than the general public.

Tiananmen seems to me the government’s final deathblow to and disassociation from the “revolutionary spirit” under which modern China was founded. Granted political movements have at times proved disastrous in China when misled, but the students and others who protested on 6/4 were definitely tapping into a culture of political activism, that since those events has been significantly curtailed. When thinking of 6/4 we must necessarily think of all those movements occurring in the same spot that came before it, whether it be the founding of the country, the masses of Mao worshipers, the mourners of Zhou Enlai and Hu Yaobang. Tiananmen Square was once a public forum for the voice of the Chinese people, it was a spatial link between the people and their government, but has since been dramatically silenced forcing a redefinition of political relationships. While I think many prefer to see the Tiananmen incident as a culmination of years of oppressive rule under a Communist regime, I don’t think the students saw it this way. Despite its past mistakes, the government that they were speaking to at the time was THEIR government, the People’s government, as it had been since its founding in 1949. If anything I see the result of Tiananmen as severing this bond, by treating their own people as antagonists in an international political spectacle, the government forcibly broke the bond that they had originally created which has resulted in much of the political apathy and at times explosive distrust of the government we have witnessed since then. (While the Hundred Flower’s movement and the Cultural Revolution certainly didn’t help this relationship, to me Tiananmen was the final dissolution.)

Having said all this, I think there have been attempts to re-cultivate the relationship between the Chinese government and its people (mostly on the government’s terms), but it remains fragmented and complex without the clear guidelines that it once had. Further, we still see some remnants of the “revolutionary spirit” that founded this country, the more frightening being the anti-Japan protests, the more hopeful the public response to the Sichuan earthquake, but once again, this spirit exists a pale shadow of its former self hindered by an underlying political wariness on both the government and public’s part.

As much as people want to forget it and deny that it has any influence on the present, it does and will continue to do so, whether overtly or in the shadows of China’s historical and political consciousness. And as long as it remains the “elephant in the room”, it will be hard to truly move on.

June 3, 2009 @ 11:35 am | Comment


June 3, 2009 @ 11:51 am | Comment

“Sensationalism sells, that’s the problem Western Media.”

Try this as an alternative for CCP sensibilities:

‘Primates engaging in civilised group behaviour dispersed and dissected in close quarter meeting with large mechanical device.’

Stick that in your textbooks and smoke it.

June 3, 2009 @ 12:10 pm | Comment

There seems to be an interesting dichotomy between the Tiananmen Square of history, which will be all over the news June 4, and the Tiananmen Square that you’d experience while visiting in the present. I’m not sure yet which image will win out in the popular memory: the vast, solemn tourist attraction today or 1989’s violent suppression. Visiting today (or even tomorrow) would probably be more like this:

P.S. Writing from the Stanford campus, I’m pretty sure WE didn’t create Math and his argument. I’d check those MIT kids.

June 3, 2009 @ 12:30 pm | Comment

Apologists can write all of the comments that they want: but really, what sense is there in blocking twitter and flicker based on political paranoia? It speaks volumes about this Party… namely that it is fully aware that its own behavior is in fact no better than the occupying Japanese, and that it will do anything to attempt to cover over that fact. Unlike Japanese textbooks, which often at least cite what happened in Nanjing, Chinese textbooks, newspapers, and the internet are wholly united in completely obliterating any mention of this event in 1989, besides as a rationalized case of “pest extermination.”
Read Japanese dispatches from Nanjing in ’37 and ’38, and tell me if you can find any difference from government whitewashing of Tiananmen? And as for the current excuse of “stability” and “economic development,” well fuck, Japan had quite a good handle on that long before the CCP. So if you really like getting massacred and developing quickly, stop cowering before the Party and reinstate the East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere!
If not… then begin showing some respect for those who lost their lives throughout the city of Beijing on June 3-4, and treat them with the same reverence as any lost life. Don’t run around like imperial eunuchs making excuses to rationalize their death and their suffering. Just as the story above shows, these were real people who went through unimaginable suffering. One’s mind is boggled by the prospect of patriotism that rationalizes and even celebrates the suffering of one’s fellow countrymen for an elitist illusion.

June 3, 2009 @ 1:54 pm | Comment


“When a government tries to suppress the truth, it means they are afraid of it. That applies to democracies as well as authoritarian systems.”

By that logic, the modern German Republic is “afraid” of the “truth” behind Nazi ideology? (See: David Irving)

And the United Kingdom is “afraid” of the truth behind anti-Semitic rants? (See: “Heretical Two”)

June 3, 2009 @ 1:59 pm | Comment

black is the color of death and mourning in the west, so if The Man is giving people a hard time in the streets about wearing white, switch to black, especially a black armband.

June 3, 2009 @ 3:09 pm | Comment

Wow, no, those were not the examples I would have gone for, actually. Are you equating the Tiananmen protesters with Nazis?! That’s quite a stretch!

In fact, the German government post-Nazi era went out of its way to teach what had happened during the Second World War and to educate its citizens about the crimes of the regime. It’s a striking contrast with Japan, where many of Japan’s atrocities have been minimized in textbooks and the like.

So honestly, your example proves the exact opposite point. Post WW2 Germany made it a point to tell the truth to its citizens, no matter how unpleasant and unpalatable that truth was. They told the truth about the wrongs the government had done. They felt it was the only way that Germany could possibly recover from the crimes they had committed and build a healthy society from the ashes of their defeat and humiliation.

What you’re talking about above, I think, is a restriction on hate speech. I don’t necessarily agree with it (and I’m unfamiliar with the British case to be honest). There are a lot of arguments about what is unacceptable in a society that believes in freedom of expression. Generally restrictions are made under the justification that shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, when there is no fire, is not a legitimate expression of free speech.

You know, I was not in China in 1989. I’d been there a decade before. But I remember those days very clearly. I don’t know how old you are, but I’m going to assume you’re young (apologies if I’m wrong). China in 1979 was a very different place. People I met had been through horrific traumas in the CR. The students I taught were extremely fortunate to be in school (most of them were returned students) but few felt that they would have any real say over their own futures. They would be told what to do. It was all pretty depressing in a lot of ways.

When the protests began in April, I just could not believe it. Coming from the China I’d seen, I was astounded. It felt like an incredible opening up, like all of these people who had felt hopeless suddenly had hope. It wasn’t just students, it was intellectuals and workers, and there was such a sense of joy. I think that’s the thing you might be missing. I made plans to return to China for the first time since I’d left because it seemed like the horrible sadness and helplessness I’d observed when I lived in BJ was lifting. People were taking control of their own lives. They were reaching out to each other, marching together, students and intellectuals and workers. After the chaos and brutality of the CR, it was really beautiful and stunning to see. Granted, what I saw was filtered through the Western media, and I accept that I could not have gotten as true a picture as if I’d been there, and even when you are an eyewitness, a lot of times your view is very narrow. But I followed the news compulsively, through every source I could find.

After 6/4 I and another friend collected some money to donate to the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at UCSD. The students I met were shell-shocked. Stunned. They couldn’t believe what had happened. It was one of the saddest things I’ve ever experienced. The crushing of hope.

I know that there were jerks involved in the movement, that some of the student leaders were egomaniacs on a power trip, but it didn’t have to end the way that it did.

June 3, 2009 @ 3:18 pm | Comment


absolutely. or as this chinese textbook says history is not easily changed and we should all speak the truth.

these apologists and useful idiots should hang their heads in shame

June 3, 2009 @ 4:10 pm | Comment

we can get the detailed information about the 6-4 issue from the book “the reform in China” written by ZZY, and deduce the reason of today’s the political climate and censorship in China.however, the dirty, nasty and complicated political relation in central goverment make me still wonder when will that issue be re-evaluated by offical and when will the significant political reform come to us.

June 3, 2009 @ 4:18 pm | Comment

[…] to the Peking Duck, “angry bloggers” and others looking for a way to mark the anniversary without getting […]

June 3, 2009 @ 4:55 pm | Pingback

I want to echo Andy R’s and Lisa’s comments, and am sorry I don’t have time now to add my own testimonial of what I saw in 1989. Maybe it’s one of those things where “you had to be there.” And “there” for most of us was in front of the TV when, for the first time ever, there was full-time news coverage of a major enfolding event. And I can’t begin to tell you how differently you would feel today if you had been watching the dram in real time. I don’t remember the entire world – or at least my entire world – brimming with so much hope before. As Lisa said, it was truly miraculous, people “taking control of their lives,” expressing themselves, so many joining in from the street. Every day brought something new and unbelievable. It was agonizing enough to see that defeat was coming. But that it ended in such unnecessary violence, and that now it’s being revised and distorted and erased… A gain, maybe if you weren’t around at the time you don’t understand just how monumental this was. And to hear pugster’s scorn and denial is heartbreaking, because it signals the success of the brainwashing (and yes, this truly is brainwashing). An entire thrilling chapter of China’s history, gone. I know, it sounds melodramatic and maybe mawkish, but again, if you were watching ti happen, you would understand why some of us are so “obsessed” and why we feel we have no choice but to speak out. Even if no one’s listening. The ghosts of Tiananmen still haunt Beijing, as they haunt everyone who watched the joy turn to catastrophe.

June 3, 2009 @ 6:10 pm | Comment

The alternative story

Just imagine….

I still remember that too.

Maybe that is what really haunts the powers that be in CH.

June 3, 2009 @ 6:29 pm | Comment

@Ecodelta – There are few moments with more power in recorded history than when we see those in power silenced by the people. Ceauşescu’s rule ended the moment the crowd shouted him down, it could so easily have been the same in China. You can see it here:

Of course, Ceauşescu had his apologists too – like Robert Maxwell, the media mogul and former MP (and possible Mosad/Eastern Bloc spy) , who wrote a grovelling biography of the man.

June 3, 2009 @ 9:31 pm | Comment


Honestly, I didn’t think there is a lucid and complete logical reasoning flow in my first post until you kindly pointed it out. It was just originally intended as a melange of my spontaneous emotions and fleeting thoughts like something you’d have written on the margin of a book. I did present a lot of unanswerable and unanswered questions, but by raising those questions I would be too logically inept to be aiming at dissuading you from the quest for truth. Rather, those questions were provided as alternative explanations that must be first disproved or eliminated before anyone in good conscious could wholeheartedly embrace the interpretation that seems plausible to you guys–that it is the highest authority of the then Chinese government who is to take the full responsibility of the bloodbath happened two decades ago and that what happened is exactly what they masterminded in their luxurious home at Zhongnanhai. Personally I am more disposed to believe that no one would like to see any blood on their hands. The crackdown, the charging tank, the gun firing were all resulted from the escalation of the seemingly-uncontrollable situation and the lack of prowess of the then-government in dealing with students’ petitions, to think how badly they did in the runners-up to the Olympics almost 20 yeas after with the aid of world-class PR companies! But again, this part is only the fantasy of me, a humbled, unexperienced, naive Chinese citizen who has been “indoctrinated” since elementary school with biased and distorted accounts of history and thus lost the ability to see from an “objective” angel. (But please bear in mind that we are not like Peking Duck that consumes everything fed)

In short, my raising those questions was not supposed to deter you from believing in anything, but rather to bring the alternatives to the table so that you won’t risk jumping to a conclusion too soon or being excessively pontificating. Still, feel free to correct me if I misunderstood your belief or “fantacy”,as you did mine.

And it’s indeed very pleasant to read about your theory of the Tiananmen incident serving as the terminator of the “revolutionary spirit” that founded China. But again I found it a tiny little point that I have to defer with, since I believe the “revolutionary spirit’ of China had not reached its heyday till the cultural revolution. What’s more, this spirit, being it revolutionary in the founding period of this country or–more mildly–reformist as in the economic developing age, is not and never going to constitute the momentum that has been keeping this country thriving in an age of global economic downturn or the driving force that has propelled the Chinese civilization to survive over the millennia.
Though I have a feeling that some people might sniff at what I am going to say, some might also agree that it is the exceptionally rare ability of Chinese people to tolerate tortures, adjust to any kind of political regimes and swallow the pain that made what China looks like today. No matter how it is called, apathy or indifference, I truly believe it is one of the most useful pieces of wisdom that Chinese parents can possibly teach their children, not for them to live well, but to survive. In a country where too many people are competing for limited resources at the same time, each of whom being perfectly speculative, selfish and ambitious, I sincerely believe that’s a must-have attitude and also an philosophy you will eventually feel to espouse no matter how defiant and politically deviant you are in your youth. The environment is way more forcible than we’ve imagined, at some point we must have all succumbed to its influence, which is very sad. But that’s what is fated to be a Chinese, the master of surviving with satisfaction at under barely survivable conditions.

Forgot to say, I concur with the vast majority of the points made by Andy, literally those I didn’t implicitly disagree with, and I view Andy quite perceptive putting things in perspective.

June 3, 2009 @ 10:28 pm | Comment


“my point would be more appropriately summoned up as the lawless, reprehensible conduct carried out by armed force might not be out of the will of the then-gov . Besides attributing the fault to the highest leaders like Deng, some people never seriously reckoned on other way less sensational possibilities that have not been ruled out or disapproved by the historical records like Mr.Ma’s books.”

um, you don’t know what you are talking about, do you? you certainly haven’t read the tiananmen papers and you sound like you might not even have heard of them. your starting point needs to be the tiananmen papers and work from there. my advice is to go away, read up on it and come back when you have some knowledge not random speculation. otherwise people may start to think you are trolling, which is my current suspicion. i personally don’t sniff at what you say, rather dismiss it out of hand as you don’t back your generalised assertions with anything substantive at all.

June 3, 2009 @ 11:22 pm | Comment

Thanks for this article. It fits very well with a quote from the NYT that I saw by Xiao Qiang in this video

“In 1989, the voices of those gathered on Tiananmen Square were heard on TV screens by millions around the world. Today, millions of voices express themselves on the Internet, carrying on the demand for democratic reforms that the Tiananmen protesters called for.”

June 4, 2009 @ 7:07 am | Comment


Thanks for the response and the kind words. It’s nice to have a back and forth with someone on this forum that actually reads responses and responds intelligently without preconceived biases. And, to be fair, after your explanation I think I read a bit too far into your initial post, perhaps unfairly saying that you were dissuading people from discovering the truth based on unknown and unexplored possibilities.

I see what you are saying about the Cultural Revolution being the “culmination” of China’s revolutionary spirit. It’s disastrous consequences certainly took much of the wind out of its sails. But I don’t think you can truly understand what happened at Tiananmen without understanding the historical myths, precedents, and experiences that its participants were drawing on and at the same time rejecting. The ethos of China’s revolutionary spirit was born during the May Fourth Movement, the young communist Party drew on their rhetoric to support its own revolution, and the Red Guards in turn drew on the myths of the Communist revolutionaries to justify their actions. If you look at publications from the time, there is a lot of rhetorical nostalgia connecting the Cultural Revolution to the heroic revolutionary exploits of the Old Guard. CR participants in some ways were imaginatively re-creating the “spirit” of the past in order to justify the “revolutions” (and horrors) of present.

Things definitely changed after the CR, and Tiananmen certainly should not be viewed as a simple repeat of past revolutions, but nor should it be completely disassociated from the traditions of “revolution”, “rebellion”, and “youthful idealism” that CCP historians had authored up to that time. Perhaps the main difference that truly broke with the past, was that the Tiananmen protests although conceived in the historical spirit of modern Chinese rebellions, also went significantly beyond the rhetoric of power and history as defined by the CCP. By evoking the concepts of democracy, the students took their rebellion beyond the CCP approved paradigms of revolution, on a symbolic level they were disconnecting themselves from the myths of “communist idealism” that they had been expected to cherish. I think that, this in addition to the threat of general social chaos, was of great concern to the CCP at the time. They had not only lost physical control of these people, but also their ideological system and historical constructions, the foundation of their power, were obviously being questioned. If the CR was a revolution conceived to mimic Communist historical myths, Tiananmen was something quite new, a rebellion that expressly tried to draw on a broader base of ideological constructs from outside the CCP’s established model.

So all this is to say, that I kind of see where you are going with your criticism, but still view Tiananmen as an endpoint more so than the CR considering its consequences. There was a shift in the way rebellion and social congregation occured after Tiananmen. Some of the publications today have pointed this out better than I can, but in so many words the concept of “the people” became less potent and essentially was locked away as a empty rhetorical tool to be used by CCP hands only. In other words, whereas before the public used to feel more comfortable independently organizing and defining and who “the people” were, the CCP now had exclusive right to its definition i.e. the Party speaks for the Chinese people, the Chinese people cannot speak for themselves (because when they do chaos ensues).

Anyway, without drawing this out too long, my major point is that both events shouldn’t be considered singularly, but are very much connected along certain historical and ideological threads, both in their similarities and differences.

Thanks!!! 🙂

June 4, 2009 @ 2:31 pm | Comment

One more thing I want to make clear, about the above is that when I talk about the students using democracy as a “symbol” I mean this very literally, it has been proved time and time again, that contrary to way Tiananmen was portrayed in the West, the students were not asking for democracy outright. What they were doing was latching onto the “symbol” of democracy as a means of separating their movement from the CCP’s established rhetoric of power, essentially taking things out of the CCP’s comfort zone. If they had constructed the symbolism of their movement around the image of Mao and Mao Zedong thought while demanding the same basic political reforms (end of corruption, more individual economic freedom) , would the effect have been as powerful or frightening for the CCP? I highly doubt it (but then again the movement might not have met such disastrous consequences). Using democracy as a symbol, was perhaps both a brilliant and at the same time naive strategy…

June 4, 2009 @ 4:22 pm | Comment

“If they had constructed the symbolism of their movement around the image of Mao and Mao Zedong thought while demanding the same basic political reforms (end of corruption, more individual economic freedom) , would the effect have been as powerful or frightening for the CCP?”

Sorry, but i think rallying around the image of Mao may well be suicidal too because the most of the Chinese leaders that time were victims of the Cultural Revolution themselves. It would still make them paranoid because they may see it as “chaos and disorders of the Mao era”.

I think whatever symbols being used here is irrelevant. As long as leaders like Deng Xiaoping, Li Peng and Yang Shangkun feared that power was slipping from their hands, they would not hesitate to crush it with brutal force, never mind what symbol that “subversive” force use to dress itself. At the end of the day, it’s realpolitik that dominates contemporary Chinese strategic thought.

June 4, 2009 @ 6:28 pm | Comment


Good point. The question was more of a rhetorical device to make my point about the importance of symbols, but thanks for adding your thoughts about it anyway. 🙂

Obviously, I don’t agree that symbols, ideology, or history and how they are used to support political movements are irrelevant, but you are right that realpolitik shouldn’t be ignored. However, most discussion of this event takes place around the analysis of realpolitik, so I was just trying to look at things from a different angle.

The only criticism I would have of your dismissal is that you seem to imply that the Party left Mao and Mao Zedong thought behind after the CR, when to this day they are still used as basic theoretical foundations of Party leadership. You’re right that the leaders in charge at the time had suffered during the CR, but they also made the decision after Mao’s death to preserve his centrality in the pantheon of revolutionary heroes and scholars (not that they had much of a choice).

I’ll take back my sidenote that using Mao and Mao Zedong thought as the symbolic and theoretical basis for resistance at Tiananmen might have lessened the potential for disastrous consequences. You’re right that it probably would have ended the same way. Therefore, my point is not that using Mao would be a successful strategy, but that it was an available strategy, and one that would have forced the Party into perhaps an equally awkward position of defending their continued leadership against a resistance that that was using the very theoretical foundation of their power against them.

Anyway, its all supposition (and in your opinion, the discussion of symbols is irrelevant, so I won’t take any more of your time)…my broader point being that the Tiananmen movement had a choice, the Goddess of Democracy was not created on a whim, but was a savvy decision to break from the symbolic tradition of rebellion as defined by the CCP with the consequence of amplifying the voice (and for leadership at the time, terror) of the movement.

June 4, 2009 @ 7:51 pm | Comment

AndyR, IIRC, some of the protesters carried Zhou Enlai’s image on 6/4, hearkening back to 1976.

June 5, 2009 @ 4:06 pm | Comment

It’s late and I doubt that I contribute something radically new, but it is about time I write down what I think. These thoughts are not meant to be a single coherent story.

I am grateful to the students who stood up in 1989 and showed the world that freedom is an universal idea. While their movement was brutally crushed, it encouraged and inspired people elsewhere. In the spring of 1989 I was in 8th grade in what was then the GDR. We were tied to West German TV and watched in horror what happened in the end. East Germany’s politburo leaders left no doubt that they would act similarly, should there be a “counterrevolution”. And indeed, there were tense days in the fall when demonstrations took place in Dresden (my city) and Leipzig. We are infinitely blessed that the revolution remained peaceful and that the Berlin Wall came down in a mere few weeks, leading to a unified and free Europe. The only Eastern European leader who tried the “Chinese solution”, Nicolae Ceausescu, saw his army mutiny and turn against the brutal Securitate. He did not live to see the end of the year.

It is only possible to speculate what might have happened had the PLA units disobeyed orders to shoot at the people they were supposed to protect. Obviously, the prediction that chaos and civil was would have followed comes precisely from those who are still in power. Its credibility therefore is limited.

Ultimately I think the Chinese people will follow the example set by other nations. Freedom of thought and expression, freedom of religion and speech are not “Western” constructs. This is proved by people all over the world who have fought for them and continue to do so. Who would still argue today that the brutality of Augusto Pinochet was “culturally right” for the “lazy South Americans”? What conviction gave Nelson Mandela the strength to survive 28 years of incarceration, if not the belief that black South Africans had a right to freedom as well? As for Asia, who still remembers Chun Do Hwan? Where are Imelda Marcos and her thousands pairs of shoes? We just saw hundreds of millions of Indonesians go to the polls peacefully, with little success for Islamists. The list could go on and on…

Last week I had a beer with a Chinese scientist in the United Kingdom. We toasted that to the day when 6/4 will be commemorated in a free China.

June 11, 2009 @ 10:48 pm | Comment

I am wondering how come there are so many “another Chinese”, “another math” these days.

Did I set some precedent here? I remember there was a “B Chinese” or “Chinese B” once

hopefully, we will see “another nanheyanrouchuan” soon.

June 12, 2009 @ 1:44 am | Comment

The debate over the tanks is interesting. Dead is dead, right?

But it’s symbolic, because humans get very squeamish over things like that. The prospect of getting crushed by a tank is terrifying — it’s like Hannibal’s elephants. The Soviet Army used to run over infantrymen with a tank during training (obviously, with him in the gap between the treads), to desensitize them to tanks.

Shooting people is just violent, but running them over with a tank seems cruel and heartless as well. That’s why Deng Xiaoping took such pains to deny it. It’s not difficult to believe that some people were run over. Weapons, soldiers, crowd — things happen. But who gave the order, and how widespread was this? To a large extent, whether you believe Deng Xiaoping on this depends on how you feel about Deng Xiaoping in general.

June 15, 2009 @ 8:12 am | Comment

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