Ghosts of Tiananmen Square

Allow me to put up a brief post on the anniversary of June 4th, as I’ve done every year for some 12 years or so. The Tiananmen Square protests were a landmark in my life. I had just bought cable TV for the first time in the winter of 1989, and I will never forget watching CNN, transfixed by what looked like an unstoppable movement. I watched the students carry out the Goddess of Democracy, I watched the tanks rolling down the streets, I watched Tankman standing up to the PLA (and the amazing sight of the tank driver veering away, not wanting to harm the young man). I was full of hope that the students were really reshaping society. I knew nothing of China at the time, except that it was ruled by an authoritarian regime and was rarely featured on US television. Then the demonstrations began and for reasons I still don’t fully understand the media were all but invited to cover it. Thus the nonstop coverage from CNN.

If you go to the Tiananmen Square entries in the archives, you’ll see that I’ve said practically all I have to say about the TSM. It was a traumatic event for me and for the world. It still moves me, to remember reading about the shootings in the side streets around the square, and the rolling in of tanks as though there was a state of civil war (and there nearly was). It was so painful, watching what had been a great expression of hope suppressed with such ruthless violence. Many years later the images still haunt me. For those of you new to the site, please check out my interview with a demonstrator, written some 13 years ago. The demonstrator I talked with echoed almost to the letter the observation I read in a new article on the incident that came out today:

But young people in China today are defined by two major characteristics: caution and ambition. Cui, a young auditor working for accounting firm Ernst & Young, told me the anniversary “isn’t directly related to me, or to my life. I don’t know any young people around me who care about the June fourth anniversary either.” Instead, Chinese youth “think about how to set our roots in the big cities and grab a better position for ourselves in the future. China is still developing fast, and the opportunities to have a better life are now or never,” Cui explained. “Who wants to risk losing everything we have achieved for a vague dream?”

This is pretty much what the demonstrator said in my interview; we care about having our needs met, not human rights, and at a time of prosperity why dig up skeletons we don’t really care about?

Another of my memories is from 2009, when I was working at the Global Times. I’ve recounted it in earlier June 4 posts, so bear with me for the repetition. I had printed out the iconic photo of Tankman standing in front of the tanks and asked my colleagues if they were familiar with the image. Nearly all said they were not, and had no idea of the incident. Only one editor, my manager and a good party member, was familiar with it, and she asked me why this was seen in the West as an act of courage. It was, she argued, an example of a protestor going against the common good of the people of China. I couldn’t argue with her; she had it all figured out.

Let me share one more link of another article that came out today, this one an interview with perhaps the most thorough and prolific chronicler — and first-hand participant — of the TSM and the demonstrations, of which he has written three books (he wrote them in Hong Kong, of course). I would put it in the “must-read” category.

I calculated that around 200,000 troops took part in the martial law forces. And the book gives a more precise number of units that made up the martial law troops. These answers aren’t estimates: they’re precise figures based on evidence….The killing actually continued after June Fourth. In Beijing, many workers and urban residents continued to protest after June Fourth, as did people in other cities around the country. Many of those protesters paid a high price. After June Fourth, the Communist authorities carried out a large-scale campaign of investigations and arrests. This is another important part of the history of June Fourth.

I have to admit it, I am feeling Tiananmen’d out. Still, every year I feel compelled to put up something about it because I believe the incident needs to be remembered, and China still needs to come clean about what actually happened. (I’m not holding my breath.) We bore witness to history, thanks to the television cameras and news crews, and that history must never be forgotten. Again, check out my earlier posts on the subject, written when I was younger and had more energy; you’ll see just how passionate I am about Tiananmen Square and it’s tragic conclusion. Never forget.