21 years ago today….


Via CDT, AP photographer Jeff Widener’s photo of two amateur photographers taking shots of the “goddess of democracy.”

Later in the week Widner would take the most famous photo to ever come out of China.

I have to admit, I want to move back to China. It’s always in my heart, and sometimes I feel like dropping everything and heading back. But no matter how much I love China, I will never forget what the government there is capable of, the good and the bad. The government can bulldoze over the old Gulou hutong (and do check that link), they can scrub uncomfortable references from the Internet, but they cannot delete what happened that day, and no story of modern China is complete without including it. Never forget.

The Discussion: 23 Comments

xoxoxoxoxoxox Richard. I feel the exact same way.
Hope you are well.

June 4, 2010 @ 8:44 am | Comment

Thanks Diane; I’m as well as can be expected, considering I’m not in Beijing.

June 4, 2010 @ 8:50 am | Comment

Beijing is already well on its way to becoming a Chinese “Disney” theme park…I couldn’t believe what they had done to the Qianmen area during my last visit. Luckily we did find the time to visit the Drum Tower area before it loses all its charm. I think this most recent visit was my last (though I may have to drag my kids their at some point for the usual tourist sites) Richard, don’t you think these “mall-ification” projects have a contributory effect on erasing popular memories of events like Tiananmen? I felt a great sadness when I walked out into the middle of that strip mall they call Qianmen now.

June 4, 2010 @ 8:57 am | Comment

Andy, mallification has that effect on all aspects of Chinese history and culture. I totally feel your pain. But it will continue, and it has to continue. You have to keep the money coming in, and development is the fastest and easiest way. It’s a tragedy, but if you could go back to Greenwich Village in the 1940s and then look at it today you’d see almost the same phenomenon. Progress comes at a very high price.

Luckily they will not gentrify Tiananmen Square and the surrounding area, at least not too much (famous last words). When they announce the Forbidden City is going condo, then I’ll know we have to worry.

June 4, 2010 @ 9:15 am | Comment

Every year this time, this topic comes, like a woman’s menstruation. Don’t you realize no one cares? Take a break please.

Who invented rolling tanks onto the streets against civilians ? You guessed it. Americans did it during the Bonus March massacre.

June 4, 2010 @ 9:37 am | Comment

Exactly…and it is a little cliche at this point to lament the loss of historical charm to development. I’m singing the same song many people have before. I just wish modernization (in all its various forms) had more to offer than KFC, Metersbonwe, and garish advertisements with pouting models hocking luxury goods. I don’t know whether “progress” is the right word for it…

June 4, 2010 @ 10:07 am | Comment

HX at his most noxious. Of course people care. Just because you thrive on ignorance, blind obedience and (with all due respect) stupidity doesn’t mean the rest of us have to.

Every year this time, this topic comes, like a woman’s menstruation.

You know something? Every anniversary is like that. So is your birthday. So of course every year at this time we’ll stop and remember it. At least those of us who care about China will.

Andy, we call it progress, but in truth, much of that progress results in greater poverty for the masses and concentration of wealth among the oligarchs. Most societies temper this by allowing just enough drip down to the disenfranchised and the middle classes to keep them pacified. China is trying to do the same.

June 4, 2010 @ 10:14 am | Comment

“Andy, we call it progress, but in truth, much of that progress results in greater poverty for the masses and concentration of wealth among the oligarchs. Most societies temper this by allowing just enough drip down to the disenfranchised and the middle classes to keep them pacified. China is trying to do the same.”

100% agree (odd for this forum, huh? maybe I need to stop posting because we seem to agree too much to spark a tantalizing debate)…but with talk like that I’m afraid we’re both going to be accused of being evil “socialists” by most of our fellow Americans! 🙂

June 4, 2010 @ 10:26 am | Comment

This is a tired debate and a very dead horse but I still feel like I have something to say.

I’ve been thinking about relative perspectives a lot lately and how impossible it is to escape one’s own perspective, no matter how much seeing-the-otherside and introspective criticism is attempted. We are all a product of very narrow experience, out of the myriad of possible lives and paths in the world, we often forget we occupy only one out of many. Few people think about this and fewer will admit to it. Just as a good research scientist has constant doubt as a part of his/her very soul and will question their own certainties and I think a good person must have that same qualities when passing moral judgment. You haven’t done this; or at least you haven’t shown me this rigor in your writing. “never forget” who are you saying this to? The Chinese people or Americans most of whom get their world prospective about a people and their history with a 60 sec newsclip?

Every people loves itself and there’s an old saying “we are very popular with ourselves” It happens to be one of the terms of the american mythos that Democracy is what is so good about america and with that the troublesome corollary of then everybody needs democracy. If I were to never forget anything today it would be that this is not an given truth, nevermind one that has been born out of objective evidence. Iraqi democracy anyone?

June 4, 2010 @ 10:50 am | Comment

This isn’t about democracy, a word I don’t use when discussing 1989; that’s not what the protests were about, at least not to most of the demonstrators. As you say, each of us experiences things in his own unique way. The Tiananmen Square “incident” affected me personally and deeply; it was my introduction to modern China. It was the first breaking news I ever watched on CNN and its images will be with me forever. And since this is my blog and deals only with things that move me and interest me, I’ll post about this every year, just as I will about September 11.

June 4, 2010 @ 11:02 am | Comment

As I am reading Philip Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow and into the third chapter, one question really caught me attention, if it weren’t the memory razing of Anti-Rightist Campaign and Cultural Revolution (by you know who), the 89 generation would possibly get a much better idea what their government would be capable of doing (answer: anything). And maybe, just maybe, the students would’ve backed off long before things got intense and scared the most senior leadership to panic decisions. Well, this is all by hypothesis, but as we talk about this, the government is doing exactly the same thing to TAM as it was to Anti-Rightist and CR, I doubt the logic will hold true again about the above hypothesis, but history may just as well repeat itself, say, 10 years from now, when let’s again hypothesize, the next generation of well-raised had no idea what their government is capable of doing. This is a vicious cycle of thoughts, but something interesting out of the book.

June 4, 2010 @ 11:22 am | Comment

Justin, you were right – sorry for misunderstanding you, and also sorry for accidentally deleting this comment. I deleted what I wrote before. Totally misunderstood you. Please accept my apology.


June 4, 2010 @ 11:30 am | Comment

Thanks Michael. You’re reading one of my favorite books.

June 4, 2010 @ 11:42 am | Comment

On a cold rainy June night.In shock with wet eyes.
Watched CNN all night long. On my new 27 inch Trinitron
Under the stars of our good government
We also had our moments, off the top of my head.
Chinese execution act, Stonewall, Kent State
And now we have the Patriot Act 1 & 2
Acts and lack of understanding allows
little senator from Wisconsin become very capable
Like our old friend Joseph McCarthy
More like him will be elected, if we are not careful
So I will do my part, past on blogs like yours
And vote on June 2010.

June 4, 2010 @ 12:25 pm | Comment

Richard, thanks for keeping the memory alive. I was worried you were going to forget about June 4 this year. Glad to see you’ve still got the old passion that made this blog famous.

June 4, 2010 @ 12:26 pm | Comment

In my opinion, the naivete of the students with regard to how their government would react was not necessarily a result of the erasure of the CR’s legacy from official historical narratives, but rather a continuation of the youthful innocence towards the concept of revolution as defined by the CCP (which was part and parcel of the CR). You have to recall that up until the end of the CR (and even beyond that), the government had actively encouraged people to participate in political movements. Their participation though warped by the questionable politics of leadership was nonetheless CONDONED by the state (as long as it was not in opposition to it). The merits of revolution and the popular participation in such was a key component of the CCP’s historical narrative. Revolution toppled the Qing, it kicked out the Japanese, it established a “utopian” communist system, it drove those who sought to “undermine” that system out. In short, popular revolution was the answer to injustice (real or imagined) faced by the Chinese people. The students at Tiananmen were carrying on this legacy just like the Red Guards did, but with one important caveat. This was not a “popular” uprising lead by the Party for once. To me, what died at Tiananmen was this spirit of activism. The Chinese people may have finally come to the realization that not all injustice could be eradicated by the “revolution’ the CCP had until then based its legitimacy on i.e. the Party was off limits. The result was a rude awakening that has resulted in many of the political attitudes we see today i.e. indifference, helplessness, and confusion over the proper role of the public in governance.

June 4, 2010 @ 12:27 pm | Comment

Thanks Fiona, it’s been a long time.

Alfred, I appreciate the poem, and agree, there’s a lot of bad things that every country has done. The Patriot Act and Kent State and Abu Ghraib – they’re all in the public domain and have been dissected, criticized, analyzed and agonized over for years and years. In China, the tragedy never even took place. And that’s the source of the unending frustration, and it’s a very bad strategy. Like, if Bill Clinton had come clean about Monica at the beginning, he would have taken a few weeks or months of criticism and outrage. Instead, he stonewalled and lied, and was left to slow-roast for what seemed an eternity. Cardinal rule in PR – get the bad news out in front right away. Then you can clean it up.

June 4, 2010 @ 12:36 pm | Comment

Wow…this brings back some mixed feelings. My mom and I were on the tail end of a 3 week tour of China that ended up in Beijing May 30th thru the night of the 3rd when we finally were allowed to leave. We were supposed to get out on the 2nd but tanks and stuff were starting to arrive at the airport and soldiers were everywhere and our airplane had been commandeered to fly in soldiers. Good times.

Still remember all the peace V’s being thrown around by everyone and the smiles and sense of hope in the city prior to the 4th. Even driving thru T.Square the day before the massacre there was an amazing energy and sense of purpose coming off the protesters. Our guide was a student and urged us to take pics (which were banned in Beijing at the time) and tell everyone when we left what was happening. Then HKG blew up the next day in rioting when the news broke.

Such a weird slice of history to be a witness to. I, for one, will never forget it.

June 4, 2010 @ 12:58 pm | Comment

I remember it forever. People won’t forget it, the whole world waits.

@richard Don’t talk to 5mao or something like that.

June 4, 2010 @ 2:00 pm | Comment

Thanks for posting this, Richard.

My first time in China was 1979. It was a very strange time. The country was emerging from the trauma of the CR. Peoples’ lives were still rigidly controlled. As a young foreigner, I left China after six months feeling beat up and dispirited but also completely and utterly changed. I could never leave China behind, as much as a part of me wanted to.

When the events unfolded in April 1989 I was amazed and filled with hope. It was like all of the bad things that I’d seen and heard about were being healed. People who felt like they had no control over their own lives were on the streets, taking control, filled with joy and possibility. I had to get over there and see it. I had a flight reserved, I think for June 10th.

Well, I didn’t end up going. I remember feeling like I’d experienced a death of someone close to me. I got in touch with a Chinese student organization at UCSD and with another friend helped raise a little money for them. I remember their stunned and devastated expressions.

I feel like June 4 was one of those awful turning points, where history could have gone another way, in a better direction. I feel the same way about certain events in recent years in the States.

The thing is, until there is open and free and truthful discussion of these events, there will never be healing from them. The wounds get papered over and continue to fester.

There was another China that could have emerged from June 4, and I am sad that it was strangled in its cradle.

June 4, 2010 @ 3:19 pm | Comment

I thought that there are better ways to ‘protest’ rather than having people waving China flags and holding Red umbrellas in Tiananmen Square.

June 5, 2010 @ 1:33 am | Comment

Lisa, thanks for the beautiful comment. I’m just sorry it got soiled by pug’s nonsense immediately below.

Unlike you, I hadn’t been bitten by the China bug yet – I had never been there and never expected to go. And yet, I was transfixed by the demonstrations and watched them as if in a dream. When I saw the videos of police and soldiers joining the students, I thought we were about to witness the impossible, that tyranny was going to melt away in front of our eyes.

Well, it didn’t end the way I expected, and in a single instant China stigmatized itself, and no matter how much the pugs and the merps insist no one cares, the world still hasn’t forgotten, and no matter how close we get to China and no matter how much more it opens up, the world will always remember that just beneath the surface lurks a beast, and once it feels threatened it can rise up and do whatever is necessary to keep its power, even if it means firing live ammunition into crowds of its own citizens.

No, that is not all that the CCP is. We all know the good things that have happened in China since Deng took power. But at its core, things are very much the same. The government will still do anything and everything to keep its power, and should the people ever feel they need to stand up and challenge it, we can have June 4th all over again.

June 5, 2010 @ 1:57 am | Comment

The CCP will do what’s best for the CCP. If by happenstance that at times coincides with what would be good for Chinese people, well, I suppose the CCP will begrudgingly allow that.

June 5, 2010 @ 9:54 am | Comment

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