Allow me to emerge from my self-imposed hibernation to comment briefly, as I have done nearly every year in this blog’s 13-year history, on what happened in the streets around Tiananmen Square and in other Chinese cities on June 4th, 1989.
I had just moved to Phoenix in the Spring of 1989 for a new job, and for the first time I could afford cable television. CNN’s coverage of the demonstrations in China transfixed me as I watched the entire drama unfold. I remember watching amazed as the students carried out the “Goddess of Democracy,” and as thousands of others — not only students but working people, even police officers — joined the demonstrating masses. I had no particular interest in China at the time, but was riveted to my TV set; I saw the students as heroes and the government as villains. Now I know it was not nearly so black and white, but I still see the students as idealists fighting for a noble cause, and I see those who ordered the shootings as murderers.
In past posts on the subject, some of my Chinese commenters came back with the “America does it too” argument, pointing to the Kent State shootings. But here’s the big difference: Everyone in America who is literate and curious about the nation’s history is familiar with the story of the Kent State massacre. Public television (maybe CNN?) just a few weeks ago had a special program all about the shootings, what led up to them and how the deaths were seared into the national psyche. In China, of course, not only is there a total blackout of anything having to do with the TS demonstrations and ensuing massacre, there is a willful campaign to purge it from the national consciousness.
I can’t say much more about this subject than I have in the past. I’ve acknowledged that not all the students were angels, and that they had power issues of their own. But they were fighting for the right cause — greater representation, challenging rampant corruption, demanding accountability from those in power. The catastrophic turn of events that culminated in soldiers firing live ammunition into crowds on the side streets of Tiananmen Square was an act of brutality I can never forgive or forget.
One year ago I wrote a post about the remarkable book by former NPR correspondent Louisa Lim, The Peoples’ Republic of Amnesia. I wish everyone who argues that enough has been said about the “incident” already and that it’s time to move on and forgive/forget would read this book, which makes it clear that the TSM remains an open wound for many, and that won’t end until the government comes clean about what actually happened. As I wrote in my post:
…Lim notes how thoroughly the government has wiped out nearly all memories of the TSM. Every reference to it is silenced. The Tiananmen Mothers are persecuted. Several Chinese I spoke with in my old office said the only thing they know about it is that angry demonstrators killed innocent soldiers. Ignorance is Strength. This is what I call brainwashing — wiping the slate clean and restricting what the people can know. Anyone who reads this book will have no doubt that the Chinese people have been brainwashed on the subject.
In addition, a fine review of Lim’s book in last year’s Economist lays out the argument that the effects of the TSM resonate through China today:
One of Ms Lim’s most revealing portraits is of Bao Tong, an outspoken former senior official in Beijing who was imprisoned for seven years after the crackdown and still lives under constant surveillance. She says that from Mr Bao’s perspective the suppression of the protests was the “defining act” of modern-day China, accounting for its major ills today: rampant corruption, lack of trust in the government, a widespread morality crisis and the ascendancy of the security apparatus. The Chinese may not be so quick to blame the 1989 bloodshed, but most would recognise these symptoms.
One of the most illuminating chapters in the book deals with an atrocity I had no idea ever occurred, namely the brutal beating to death of demonstrating students in Chengdu. Lim’s harrowing description of the murders, carried out in a hotel courtyard is evidence that there is still much about the June 4th incident that hasn’t been exposed. Read the book for this alone. The violence in Chengdu is a story I will never forget.
Many Chinese — even a friend of mine — argue that the TSM was unfortunate but necessary to keep the Party in power so it could oversee the “economic miracle” that started in the early 1990s. It’s a shame some lost their lives, but it was more important to keep China from sliding into chaos and anarchy the way Russia did.They also argue that proof of the massacre’s justification is that China is moving toward greater political freedoms — the demonstrations were not necessary, the CCP is heading in the direction the students demanded all by itself. An article I saw today does a good job blowing a hole in this argument.
Even today, there are still some who believe that with further development, and the growth of a middle class, China will gradually evolve towards liberal democracy. This long-held narrative presupposes that China is on the right path now. But it isn’t. It isn’t, because of choices made through political expediency after the Tiananmen Massacre. Continuing down this crooked path is simply going to move China further away from democracy, and this has become plainly evident especially over the last couple of years since Xi Jinping took power. For 26 years, precisely because too many people have accepted the faulty premise of economic development inevitably leading to political reform, the proper and righteous resistance to the Party’s dictatorship has been forgotten. Instead, the world sits and watches, or even helps the hydra grow.
There’s a lot more I can say on the subject: tank man, the Tiananmen mothers, Zhao Ziyang, the horrors of the dead and maimed brought to Beijing emergency rooms. I’ve written about them extensively for years, and I won’t rehash it all here. Let’s just say that this is an incident that must not be forgotten, that it in many ways has helped define the CCP and its obsession with total control of its people — an obsession that has reached its pinnacle under Xi Jinping. I look at China now, with its crackdown on NGOs and repression of all dissent and the inexcusable prison sentences handed down to many who have dared speak out, and I’m not so sad that I left. In some ways, the spirit of the massacre lives on, especially in the minds of government leaders who dread the thought of anything like it happening again. They will never forget how the swelling masses of students challenged their authority; and neither will we.