June 4th

I’m not going to rehash what happened on that day in 1989, except to repeat my bottom-line belief that there was blame to be shared by all sides, but that the massacre of Beijing citizens in the side streets around Tiananmen Square was an unnecessary and avoidable tragedy that continues to haunt the Chinese government to this day. In some corners of Beijing there were terrible incidents of violence against Chinese soldiers and I can at least understand why shots were fired. But the violence around the Square is a different story. This blog has chronicled all the eyewitness accounts, including Philip Cunningham’s excellent description of what can only be described as a massacre, and we’ve all seen the BBC footage of the shootings and read the reports from demonstrators and bystanders crushed and maimed by tanks or injured by shots, we know all about the Tiananmen Mothers, etc., etc. The students may have been foolish and misguided at times (they were), but the response was not commensurate with the threat posed by the “incident,” to put it mildly. For my complete take on the suppression of the demonstrators and bystanders along with lots of links and first-hand descriptions, go here. No need to repost it.

Only one thing I’ll add that’s new, and that’s the story of a new book by Beijing’s mayor at the time of the crackdown. The Party is trying to stop the Hong Kong publisher from printing it because it is not in synch with the official story.

A new book that offers a surprising reassessment of the Tiananmen Square crackdown through interviews with a disgraced former Beijing mayor went on sale Friday in Hong Kong despite efforts by Chinese authorities to stop the sale.

“Conversations With Chen Xitong,” which is not available in mainland China, is based on interviews with Chen, who was mayor of Beijing during the 1989 crackdown. Chen has long been portrayed as having supported the military assault, but in the book he says the crackdown was an avoidable tragedy and that he regrets the loss of life, though he denies being directly responsible.

In the book, Chen tells Yao that the Tiananmen crackdown should never have happened and that he hoped the government would formally re-evaluate the event, in which the military crushed weekslong protests, killing hundreds, possibly thousands, of people….

The book adds to a growing debate ahead of a once-a-decade transfer of power in China later this year from one generation of party leaders to younger successors.

The author said Friday that Chen still considers himself a communist and isn’t trying to be a dissident. Chen believes the protests could have been resolved peacefully by using dialogue, Yao said.

We all have to draw our own conclusions. I know what mine are, and have expressed them many times over the past ten years.

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

The Discussion: 34 Comments

It’s an acknowledgment of what happened, and an expression of perhaps some contrition and regret, coming from someone who was in a position of authority at the time. It’s a start, and better than nothing. Of course, this is also one individual’s self-reflection. We’ll probably have to wait another 23 years if not longer before we get some official acknowledgment and recognition to the TAM mothers/parents of their loss.

June 4, 2012 @ 2:32 am | Comment

I’ve been thinking along the same lines as Jerome Cohen, that Chen maybe be trying to get his side of the story across before discussion of the topic becomes more permissible. That’s not to say that it’s going to happen imminently, but now might be a good time (it’s not like he’s a young man any more) to say you never agreed with a bloody massacre.

Of course the authorities pressured Chen to withdraw the book from publication, but fortunately they were too late (or he made an excuse when he said it was too late). There might not be any revelations here, but if it shows the equivalent of a rat jumping ship you have to wonder what will follow.

June 4, 2012 @ 6:03 am | Comment

What is a “massacre”? Massacre is an act that removes the right to survival of another being, using violent means, when that being had no means of resisting. The PLA repeatedly warned the students and asked them to leave the Square, and the students massively occupied the most important square in the most important city in China, for several months. They refused the warnings given by the Gov’t to leave the square. Therefore, you cannot say they had no choice, they had a choice to leave the square everyday for several months. It’s not like the Gov’t blockaded the square and trapped the students to plan their murder. Furthermore, the students used rocks, blockades, etc to impeded the enforcements of martial law, and even used fire to burn the soldiers. What happens in the USA, if you try to throw a burning object at a police officer?

Also, how come none of the leaders of the riot was killed? Wan Dan, Chai Ling, Wuer Kaixi, Liu xiaobo, etc. They are all alive and well and living very rich lives. While the innocent students who naively believed them had to die on the square. Are those student leaders not the primary culprits in their deaths? Chai Ling, when interviewed by Western jounalists during the incident, famously said, “Bloodshed is good, we want bloodshed, the more blood the better, only when there’s bloodshed will we receive attention”. Of course she was not talking about her own blood. She would be another ruthless politician if she had the chance.

Another interesting question is, how come none of the leaders of the riot was killed? Wan Dan, Chai Ling, Wuer Kaixi, Liu xiaobo, etc. They are all alive and well and living very rich lives in the USA. While the innocent students who naively believed them had to die on the square. Are those student leaders not the primary culprits in their deaths? Chai Ling, when interviewed by Western jounalists during the incident, famously said, “Bloodshed is good, we want bloodshed, the more blood the better, only when there’s bloodshed will we receive attention”. Of course she was not talking about her own blood. She would be another ruthless politician if she had the chance.

June 4, 2012 @ 6:14 am | Comment

One quote from Chai Ling doesn’t justify pumping live ammunition into a crowd of innocent people. What blood did she or the other students ever shed? Rhetoric, misguided and foolish perhaps, but rhetoric nonetheless. And it’s great the students were warned in advance. I know they were. But the response was a bit severe, don’t you think? Especially since most had already left the square by the time of the bloodshed.

Therefore, you cannot say they had no choice,

I never said they had no choice.

What happens in the USA, if you try to throw a burning object at a police officer?

To the best of my knowledge none of the students or those shot on the sidestreets of TS ever threw burning objects at police.

June 4, 2012 @ 6:44 am | Comment

To Red Star,

was your 2nd paragraph really so good that you had to say it twice?

“choice” doesn’t even factor into your own stated definition of “massacre”, so why bring it up? And the criticism isn’t, and has never been, about the CCP exercising her right to clear the square. The criticism has been about the disproportionate nature of the response…you know, PLA, tanks, etc against a bunch of civilians with rocks. Yes, it would have been even more egregious if the CCP had blockaded the square and massacred the trapped protesters like fish in a barrel. So I guess the CCP deserve brownie points for not having done that?!?

In the US, throwing things at a cop will get you arrested. Might even get you roughed up. That seems proportionate. But it would not get you run over by a tank. That, in case you were still wondering, would be the disproportionate part.

June 4, 2012 @ 7:13 am | Comment

In the US, throwing things at a cop will get you arrested. Might even get you roughed up. That seems proportionate. But it would not get you run over by a tank. That, in case you were still wondering, would be the disproportionate part.

Stop joking me. In America, throwing an object at a police officer will get you 50+ bullets on the body, and the copy will acquitted due to self-defense.

Also, in America, most students do not know about the Bonus March Incident. Don’t spread this American lie that most students now about the Bonus March incident.

Eisenhower, and MacArthur, both war heroes, were commanders of the tank battalion that went across the Washington DC mall during the incident, against unarmed veterans protesting for their benefits.

They later became war heroes, even one became the president.

Which soldier/commander during June 4th later became a hero or a high ranking official in CCP?

Using violence against peaceful protestors, shame on the US. Only the US fascist govt will use violence against peaceful protestors.

June 4, 2012 @ 8:31 am | Comment

Arguing over the history of Tiananmen is likely to be counterproductive. Leaving aside the details as to exactly how bad the massacre was and whether it was justified, what’s interesting to note here is how the current problems of China–official corruption, rising inflation, a general sense that opportunity is too closely bonded with nepotism within a one-party framework–are exactly the same problems that triggered the ’89 unrest.

The old cliche about ounces of prevention versus pounds of cure applies here in spades. If 1989 was a pound of cure, where is the ounce of prevention going to come from? To draw from another cliche, will it be a tragedy, farce, or neither?

June 4, 2012 @ 11:46 am | Comment

“In America, throwing an object at a police officer will get you 50+ bullets on the body,”
—huh? When has that happened? I’ll even grant you that that may have happened at some point. I recall a homeless man in Seattle was shot to death by an overzealous cop when he may have been wielding a knife, if memory serves. However, 50+ bullets for throwing stuff? Please. But the point is that if US police reacted in that way, they’d be wrong, just as the CCP was wrong for their excessive response on 6/4. No tu quoques required.

However, in your case, I guess you need to reach to the 1930s for your tu quoques. Looks like 2 guys were shot to death. How does that compare to TAM? Sorry, what was that? And again, fault the US government all you want for something that happened in 1933. Still does nothing to absolve the CCP for what happened in 1989, on a much much bigger scale. How does a tu quoque feel when it bites you in your sorry ass? Folks like you with your tu quoques, without which you would have sweet jack all.

June 4, 2012 @ 11:49 am | Comment

Guys, just ignore him. He’s trying to derail another thread. You can’t reason with him or shame him into silence.

I think it would be more productive if we talked about when/how the subject of the Tiananmen crackdown is likely to be discussed in China.

June 4, 2012 @ 6:12 pm | Comment

It will be interesting to see whether 6.4 or the FLG persecution is the first to be re-evaluated and what factors go into it. FLG had a higher body count, albeit through a decade-long build-up.

June 4, 2012 @ 8:28 pm | Comment

The ‘arguments’ in favour of shooting unarmed protestors presumably also apply to the May 30th incident of 1925 in China. This was when British-commanded Chinese & Sikh police shot and killed 13 protestors in Shanghai. It caused widespread outrage against the British and the incident/massacre is still used to stir up nationalistic and anti-western feelings in China.

June 4, 2012 @ 9:08 pm | Comment

It will be interesting to see whether 6.4 or the FLG persecution is the first to be re-evaluated and what factors go into it. FLG had a higher body count, albeit through a decade-long build-up.

My bet is on 6.4, as it was, in many ways, an outgrowth of Hu Yaobang’s legacy. Both Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao owe their careers to the elder Hu. There is no doubt in my mind that while some in the government (such as those following the Bo Yibo -> Li Peng -> Bo Xilai line) see 6.4 as more necessary than tragic, the view is much more nuanced from Wen’s side of the camp.

Second, the 6.4 group of dissidents never put together an organizational structure over the years, so a reevaluation of Tiananmen has a lesser risk in terms of sparking instability.

No one in China would be willing to similarly stick their necks out for the FLG. The chief icon of the FLG was an unemployed grain warehouse clerk, not the head of the Communist Youth League. Plus, the cult-like nature of its media arm (NTDTV and the Epoch Times), its penchant for bragging about how many people it has (fictitiously) influenced to leave the Party (or join FLG), hiearchical command structure, and United Front-like methods of approaching other Chinese dissidents (which I remember Fang Lizhi famously complained about, repeatedly) all smack of a Leninist approach to usurping the current power structure. Given how the CCP in its early years used a similar approach to undermine the KMT, I think most in the Party are savvy enough not to repeat any attempt at rapprochement.

June 5, 2012 @ 1:23 am | Comment

The chief icon of the FLG was an unemployed grain warehouse clerk, not the head of the Communist Youth League.

Here I should clarify that I mean Li Hongzhi never mentored any high-level Chinese officials, while Hu Yaobang was the first mentor for Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao when they “landed in Beijing from the countryside”.

June 5, 2012 @ 1:26 am | Comment

Basically, Tiananmen will likely become a convenient political football after China makes a quasi-multiparty transition, much as 2.28 and Gwangju are for the ROC and South Korean electorates, respectively. But any recriminations are likely going to be limited to electoral outcomes.

June 5, 2012 @ 1:32 am | Comment

The final thing to note here is that I doubt the Chinese government would adopt a similar approach to a Tiananmen-style gathering today. I also think any protests would be far more peaceful–and the focus would not be on democracy but on addressing inequality of opportunity. If anything, this would make a peaceful resolution much likelier to occur.

June 5, 2012 @ 1:35 am | Comment

To Raj,
my guess would be that TAM is off limits until well after the principals are dead, dudes like Li Peng who are still kicking around. That’s also assuming that the reformers continue to gain prominence over the statists.

June 5, 2012 @ 1:58 am | Comment

A reevaluation of the TAM incident may be good and probably should be done, but then I wonder what would the reactions of the idealists be if the reevaluation actually said that the CCP’s actions in that moment were justifiable and for all practical purposes, correct?

*Cue the many fits, seizures and foaming at the mouth happening*

Many intelligent, sensible and reasonable folk I talked with (both Chinese and none Chinese) said that when things came to a head-up, Deng Xiaoping made the right call at TAM. After reading deeper into the whole matter, I agree that he probably did.

June 5, 2012 @ 9:57 am | Comment

It wouldn’t necessarily be a mockery of the process if some reevaluation of the events came to the conclusion that the ccp was “justified” in trying to clear the square. But no intelligent, sensible, and reasonable person in control of their faculties would conclude that their methods, let alone the results, were justifiable. Of course, you can find many a two-bit schill to say whatever the ccp wants, which is what I’ve come to expect from those people.

June 5, 2012 @ 11:04 am | Comment

Creating any sort of impartial finding on TAM would literally require some very smart people to sacrifice enormous amounts of their own political capital (by drawing flak from both sides) to end up getting essentially nothing. That’s why it won’t happen.

Of course, people will eventually Watergate this to hell and back, but that doesn’t mean the findings will be fair, impartial, or even remotely accurate.

June 5, 2012 @ 11:17 am | Comment

So bizarre/incredible: Stocks in China fall 64.89 points today (June 4). Get it — 6/4/89? Of course, the censors are going into overdrive trying to control weibo commenters who are having a field day with this. Which proves the memory of 6/4/89 among many Chinese is not dead.

Also, all readers must go here now. These photos are unforgettable.

June 5, 2012 @ 11:43 am | Comment

Better to be an informed schill that at least bases his opinion on proper research and objective thinking than an ignorant, narrow-minded parrot constantly harping a line that he has very superficial and shallow knowledge about.

I don’t know if some of the results of TAM (in terms of casualties) were justifiable. The methods however, were very clear and straightforward. Nearly two months of concessions and allowances had been given to the students and the workers by the CCP. They (the students and workers) had refused to budge or compromise with the CCP. They forced the Deng Xiaoping to call their bluff with the fate of the country and government on the line. When push comes to shove, and with such stakes, there is no way someone like Deng will take half-hearted measures or back down on this.

“The Army will go in, clear the Square and return Beijing to normal. While the priority is to avoid casualties, if the Army is forced into a situation where they have to resort to force, then so be it. The Square MUST be cleared by 6 am. No exceptions.” Deng Xiaoping’s message and intent was very clear at that moment in time. This message was clearly communicated to the students and to the workers beforehand. Many of them chose to ignore the warning or impulsively went to confront the army on the streets. Regardless of whether they had a noble cause or intent in mind, they suffered the consequences of their decisions and actions.

One cannot force a dying horse to drink water if it stubbornly refuses to do so, nor can one prevent a lemming from jumping into the ocean if it stridently insists on it. When there are tanks, APCs, heavy machine-guns and AK47s in the streets and you insist on running down there to have a jolly good time (and taunt the troops, put barricades before them, and throw rocks and Molotov cocktails at them), well you know the risks you are taking.

The whole thing could definitely have been avoided, yes. That’s why democracy in a country packed with emotional, shallow-minded, short-term thinking fools never works. The students and workers had so many opportunities to compromise with the CCP and resolve the situation peacefully. Their (the students’ and workers’) democracy saw the downfall of reformers Zhao Ziyang, Wan Li and Hu Qili, and pushed the stakes for Deng and the CCP to the highest ever (the French Revolution comes to mind). No one will ever back down on such stakes. Not you, not I. And definitely not Deng Xiaoping.

P.S. The Americans have two terms for civilian casualties… they are called: “Justifiable Collateral Damage” or “Self Defence”. Take your pick.

June 5, 2012 @ 2:26 pm | Comment

Richard, those are some amazing photos. While on the surface, they seem to speak of an age in which China was more innocent, scratch deeper and one finds that this was simply one of the few moments in contemporary history when China was honest with itself.

June 5, 2012 @ 3:24 pm | Comment

A video and a report on Hong Kong’s candlelight vigil of last night, on ABC / Radio Australia.

June 6, 2012 @ 2:06 am | Comment

“The whole thing could definitely have been avoided, yes. That’s why democracy in a country packed with emotional, shallow-minded, short-term thinking fools never works. The students and workers had so many opportunities to compromise with the CCP and resolve the situation peacefully. Their (the students’ and workers’) democracy saw the downfall of reformers Zhao Ziyang, Wan Li and Hu Qili, and pushed the stakes for Deng and the CCP to the highest ever (the French Revolution comes to mind). No one will ever back down on such stakes. Not you, not I. And definitely not Deng Xiaoping.”

I’m not 100% sure what you’re saying here – Chinese are “emotional, shallow-minded, short-term thinking fools”? Seems a bit harsh. Odd how this democracy and peaceful transfer of power seem to work OK even in places like India.

“P.S. The Americans have two terms for civilian casualties… they are called: “Justifiable Collateral Damage” or “Self Defence”. Take your pick.”

Hmmm, that’ll explain the number of fatalities in the OWS sit ins….oh, wait… However, you forgot one other definition used in America – murder. As I recall, America has laws about that…
As I also recall, the number of deaths in the English rioting due to tanks and live weapon firing were….none (first bloke doesn’t count as his death was the instigator of the rioting, not due to the rioting).

June 6, 2012 @ 6:13 am | Comment

TE Low has trolled here in the past. I am not saying his last comment is a troll comment, but he definitely likes to stir things up. Remember the snide, mocking comment a couple months ago with all the smileys?

June 6, 2012 @ 6:22 am | Comment

Subject change: Chinageeks has been a bit quiet over the last few weeks, we’re we anticipating a hiatus…?

June 6, 2012 @ 6:38 am | Comment

Richard, I know. I shall leave it there.

June 6, 2012 @ 7:00 am | Comment

I can completely understand why China Geeks is laying low. Sometimes it’s smart to be as invisible as possible.

June 6, 2012 @ 7:09 am | Comment

To TEL,
“I don’t know if some of the results of TAM (in terms of casualties) were justifiable.”
—well if you had bothered to read what I said, or had the requisite gray matter to comprehend it, then you would realize we are essentially in agreement. The “results”, indeed, are NOT justifiable. The intent may well have been, as I had said (“It wouldn’t necessarily be a mockery of the process if some reevaluation of the events came to the conclusion that the ccp was “justified” in trying to clear the square.”) So really, if the intent was acceptable but the results not, then it really boils down to a failure of the methods. Which is why I said “no intelligent, sensible, and reasonable person in control of their faculties would conclude that their methods, let alone the results, were justifiable”. What Deng said is only relevant to a point. When push comes to shove and you’re pitting an army vs unarmed civilians (give or take some rocks and Molotov’s), the onus is on the army to show restraint. They didn’t. Hence this discussion. However, since I take you as a schill and not someone who is intelligent, sensible, or reasonable, I imagine you will be quite immune to the logic discussed here.

June 6, 2012 @ 7:58 am | Comment

Perhaps it’s the smart thing, but not the right thing. ChinaGeeks did absolutely nothing wrong, hiding will just imply guilt.

Still, I’ve pledged my life savings to Mr C’s legal defence if ever Yang Rui decides to “Man-The-Heck-Up” and make good on his petulant little threat of legal action.

June 6, 2012 @ 9:27 am | Comment

Right or wrong, sometimes you simply need to be practical, especially when deranged critics are calling for the cancellation of your visa. Tank Man did nothing wrong, but I don’t blame him for going into hiding. For all its reforms and freedoms, China can still be very much a police state.

June 6, 2012 @ 9:30 am | Comment

You’re absolutely right, Richard. However, when good people are forced to hide and live a life of poverty telling the truth, then lies becomes the only currency worth dealing in.

June 6, 2012 @ 10:28 am | Comment

Good to see you sourcing Oz media, JR. A significant percentage of those present were under 23 years old.

June 7, 2012 @ 8:15 am | Comment

Australian media would deserve much more attention than what they get, KT. The online editions of the New York Times and The Atlantic, in my view, are overrated and overquoted when it comes to China. Too much opinion, too little information.

June 7, 2012 @ 7:24 pm | Comment

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