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.

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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: 10 Comments

Ever thought about taking an annual trek to Hong Kong? They still hold a candlelight vigils every year, and it should continue (until 2047, or whenever Beijing decides to pull the rug on the whole “One Country Two Systems” as it wants to do).

June 4, 2016 @ 3:30 pm | Comment

“I have to admit it, I am feeling Tiananmen’d out.”

Although the time’s erosion casts Tiananmen ever deeper into the fog of the past, continuing to bring up the memory of the event is important because 1989 reflects an earlier moment in the Party’s continued disrespect for human life. In a similar vein to the CCP’s use of overt brutality to crush demonstrations and keep itself in power, the Party is indirectly killing people by allowing companies to severely pollute the environment as a means of attempting to sustain the economic growth that offers the government legitimacy in the eyes of its people. While a slow death due to air pollution is not nearly as dramatic as death due to a bullet wound, it is still a form of death. Of course, elements of the Party are not wholly apathetic to the pollution. One can think of the official who commended a documentary on environmental pollution. Officials at least let people know the specific toxicity levels in Beijing’s air. However, allowing such a devastating amount of air pollution to occur still demonstrates a gross disrespect for human life, since it leads to staggering amounts of sickness and death. The sad irony is that the CCP is Marxist in name while ignoring the importance Marx places on respecting individuals’ human dignity and allowing individuals to realize they have dignity that deserves to be acknowledged. Thus, June 4th remains significant by providing us a lens with which to gaze upon the current, more subtle behavior of the Party.

June 5, 2016 @ 9:03 am | Comment

The change in perspective of the protestor interviewed on this blog can be connected to Alain Badiou’s notion of Truths. For Badiou, the word ‘Truth’ is not used to indicate epistemological truth in contrast to falsity, but to signify a radical change in one’s perception of reality. Badiou claims that Truths occur in the realms of love, art, science, and politics. For example, falling in love radically alters how one views the world. Scientific advances transform the way in which we conceive of reality. I take Badiou’s notion of the Event to indicate the occurrence that triggers a Truth. Badiou also discusses what he terms ‘fidelity to the Event,’ in which one lives one’s life in light of the Event without wavering. However, one can be unfaithful to the Event. For instance, someone who was once in love might deceive himself into believing it was only lust.

I take China’s 1989 student movement to be an Event, since getting swept up in it changed students’ perception of reality. However, I do not think Badiou would see the movement as an Event, since it seems that for him political Events must involve struggles toward communism or communist-like political structures (examples: the Roman slave revolt involving Spartacus, the Taiping Rebellion). The person being interviewed was not faithful to the Event of the 1989 movement, since he chose to focus on obtaining wealth rather than to live his life in the light of the Event by continuing to strive for revolution. While I find that the interview relates to Badiou in interesting ways, I do not whish to pass judgment upon the protestor. Even if he was not in Beijing, he had to have been traumatized by the way in which the movement was crushed. Thus, his turn away from politics was perhaps a psychological reaction to the trauma. He was courageous to protest against the 80’s era Chinese government in the first place.

June 14, 2016 @ 4:37 pm | Comment

Keep your candle burning for the ideal. They are trying to wipe out the events from history.

June 27, 2016 @ 11:37 am | Comment

The only way China is going to get any justice if the same military and policemen are the protestors and rights activists. That is why China is moving nowhere thin. Protests is not going to swing the hearts of people who do not compare to the western religion properties.

Another issues is of spenders ( fu’s ). You keep spending money your feeding the beast. You have to stop giving money back to your boss

July 15, 2016 @ 7:41 pm | Comment

Thanks for the post. It all sounds extremely grim over in China at the moment but not exactly suprising either. At the same time, I see very little to be optimistic about in the west, the objective of liberal democracy as a form of government that people around the world should aspire to has never looked like a less stable idea. I can quite easily see the bargain you describe here (accepting personal freedom and stability over the pursuit of democratic ideals) as one that many of us in the West would readily accept when faced with the alternative of chaos and the tyranny of the majority.

August 4, 2016 @ 3:50 pm | Comment

Tiananmen Square seems to have defined a generation of television viewers. However, I was not alive during the 80’s and was not taught about the massacres in school. This brings up questions regarding how history relates to ethics. One could ask, for instance, whether we have in certain cases obligations to the dead to teach about the historical events that brought about their deaths. Additionally, when do we have obligations to teach about the historical tragedies that have befallen the living, since there are so many tragedies that we cannot teach a single student about all of them?

I wonder whether China’s growing power had any influence on the fact that I was not taught about the June 4th movement (not in the sense of a deliberate, conspiratorial move by the Chinese government to whitewash history for U.S. students, but in the sense that the dynamics between China and the world could subtly impact what is emphasized [or not taught] in U.S. history classes. However, a better answer is probably that Americans are an inward looking culture that is not drawn to knowledge about world history.

December 10, 2016 @ 1:56 am | Comment

*classes).

December 10, 2016 @ 1:59 am | Comment

One reason that Tank Man is such a powerful figure is that we do not know his identity, a factor that allows him to function as what Slavoj Zizek calls a hegemonic signifier – a concept that acts as a container for a multiplicity of (possibly contradictory) meanings. One example of Zizek gives of a hegemonic signifier is the shark from ‘Jaws,’ which takes on different, contradictory meanings for different interpreters (the destructiveness of capitalism, the power of nature to disrupt our ordinary lives, the uneasiness immigrants generate among nativists, etc.). The shark does not, in the strictest sense, represent these various fears, but stands in for them as the object of fear.

Similarly, one is free to project one’s own unique image into Tank Man because we cannot be sure who he was. People from vastly different groups might see him as symbolizing their specific struggles. For some individuals he could symbolize freedom of thought, for others the battle against authority. Still others might view him as a symbol of hope for the future. He has no one meaning, but generates an inexhaustible array of meanings.

December 13, 2016 @ 12:09 am | Comment

Part of why Tank Man is admirable is that he is a creative figure. He is an artist who created art without trying to. Relevant here is Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri’s concept of ‘deterritorialization,’ in which one breaks away from the conventions of society and the State, allowing one to exist in new, creative ways. Tank Man was able to deterritorialize objects and space by using them creatively. Grocery bags are normally used to carry food, but Tank Man deterritorialized them by using them as symbols of protest. Divorced from their practical utility, the bags became wrenches halting the government’s machinery rather than mere containers. By climbing onto and talking into the tank, Tank Man deterritorialized the vehicle, turning it into a platform for political demonstration rather than a military machine. Tank Man himself deterritorialized through his ability to protest in a creative fashion that allowed him to live in an unconventional way.

Thus, we should regard Tank Man, alongside Picasso and others, as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.

December 13, 2016 @ 12:36 am | Comment

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