Tiananmen Square 25 years later

This week witnessed the 25th anniversary of the death of former CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang, an event that ignited student demonstrations throughout China, but most famously in Beijing — we all know the story. It was only two days after his death that the students began flooding into Tiananmen Square.

It is a futile exercise to look at the life of Hu Yaobang and ask, “What if…?” But it’s hard not to wonder. What if he had not been demoted in 1987 and if his program for political and economic reforms were put further into place? A touching interview with his son, Hu Dehua, looks at the opportunities China lost with Hu’s demotion. I enjoyed the part recounting how Hu spoke out against slavish devotion to Mao Zedong.

Twenty-five years after his death, Hu is still best remembered by many for his liberal boldness in freeing China from the strictures of Maoist dogma.

Hu Dehua said one of the most memorable exchanges he had with his father came at the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1968. The senior Hu asked his teenage son whether he thought the popular slogan of the era – “Everything we do is for Chairman Mao; All our thoughts are of Chairman Mao; and in all our actions we closely follow and obey Chairman Mao” – was correct.

Having seen it published in state newspapers, the younger Hu said he did not question its veracity. “Can’t you use your brains? This is clearly problematic,” Hu quoted his father as saying. “Everything we do should be for the people, not for Mao.”

Forty-six years later, Hu Dehua can still vividly recall how shocked he was when his father uttered these words. “It felt as if I’d been struck by lightning – people dared not speak like that in those days,” Hu said of the decade that ensued, when criticism of Mao could result in persecution, prison or death.

“From that moment on, I knew my father was an exceptional man,” Hu, 65, said. “He did not follow the herd.”

The Global Times, ever true to form, this week published a remembrance of Hu that dances masterfully around the fact that his death led to a catastrophe that even today taints people’s perceptions of China. I love the “For reasons known to all.”

For reasons known to all, Hu is rarely mentioned in the Chinese media. Remarks about him that frequently appear on the Internet are often swayed away from official line, given that some either intentionally quoted Hu out of context or reevaluated Hu based on their own values.

The CPC Central Committee has made official judgment on Hu twice from his death to 2005. The authoritative and mature commemoration judgment has stood the test of time. Some grass roots recalled and discussed Hu from their individual angles at different times and for varied reasons. We’d like to share our views against those personal comments.

The official judgment on Hu is well-defended. When commemorating the 90th anniversary of Hu’s birth, the authorities praised his glorious life while circumventing the political controversy of his later years. It’s right to do so. Hu has been written into the history of the nation and the Party as absolutely a positive spirit. Avoiding controversy shows not only respect for Hu but also a responsibility for the course of the Party and the country. This is also the case with judging other late Chinese leaders, one of the prerequisites to ensure Chinese society keeps moving forward.

That’s right. Scrub all the controversy out of the public consciousness to “ensure Chinese society keeps moving forward.” There is no need to look at the past and learn from it. If the memory is pesky, erase it.

One of the most gripping articles I’ve read this week commemorating the start of the Tiananmen demonstrations is from NPR, chronicling the uprising in Chengdu. It reads like a thriller. And it is balanced, and makes a point I’ve tried to make in past posts about the “incident” — the students were not all angels, and there were violent acts perpetrated against police and soldiers. But the violence against the demonstrators was on a far greater scale, and, I believe, could have been averted.

At a nearby medical clinic, the bloodied victims of police brutality lay in rows on the floor. Kim Nygaard, an American resident of Chengdu, recalled that they begged her: “Tell the world! Tell the world!”

A row of patients sat on a bench, their cracked skulls swathed in bandages, their shirts stained scarlet near the collar, visceral evidence of the police strategy of targeting protesters’ heads.

But the violence went both ways: Dennis Rea, an American then teaching at a local university, watched, horrified, as the crowd viciously attacked a man they believed to be a policeman. The crowd pulled at his arms and legs, then dropped him on the ground and began stomping on his body and face, crushing it.

I had just moved to Phoenix in the Spring of 1989, and for the first time in my life I was able to afford cable TV. I remember watching riveted as CNN covered the story of the student demonstrations nonstop. Although at that time I had no burning interest in Chinese affairs I was transfixed by the drama of young people defying a totalitarian government and watching each day just how far they were able to go, with the government seemingly paralyzed. Of course, the government finally overcame its paralysis, and again, we all know the story.

There has been debate among bloggers as to whether we should continue blogging about Tiananmen Square, that it’s time to let go and move on. To me, it is an important part of China’s modern history and should never be forgotten. And it can never be forgiven until the government releases its archives, tells the truth about what actually happened on June 4th, and hopefully offers something of an apology. For many Chinese, memories of the massacre remain acute, especially those who lost loved ones or who witnessed the violence firsthand. The NPR piece relates the story of a Chengdu mother, Tang Deyang, who seeks justice for her son, beaten to death by the Chengdu police during the crackdown there. The government uses all means possible to shut her mouth.

What happened in Chengdu 25 years ago matters enough that the local government continues to devote financial and human resources to muzzling Tang. Her treatment shows how scared the Chinese authorities are of their own recent history.

A quarter-century ago, the government used guns and batons to suppress its own people. Now it is deploying more sophisticated tools of control — censorship of the media and the falsification of its own history — to build patriotism and create a national identity.

Though China’s citizens have become undeniably richer and freer in the post-Tiananmen era, Tang Deying’s experience shows the limits to that freedom. Simply by keeping alive a memory that others have suppressed or simply forgotten, Tang has become seen as a threat to social stability.

What happened in Chengdu matters because it shows the success of the Chinese government in not just controlling its people, but also in controlling their memories. In the China of today, that most personal space of all — memory — has become a political tool.

“The People’s Republic of Amnesia.” I believe in keeping the memory of Tiananmen Square alive. It must not be airbrushed out of the Chinese psyche. It is impossible to understand contemporary China without understanding the causes and effects of the demonstrations. The memory mustn’t die.

Over the past ten years I have put up scores of posts about the crackdown on the students, and as June 4th approaches I will repost the best ones here.

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June 4th, yes, again

Once again, I am resisting the temptation to write another long post about a story that has been rehashed and argued about so many times that any attempt at serious debate would most likely be futile. Instead, simply go to my post on the TSM last year and follow the excellent links. Whatever you do, don’t miss the post by Philip Cunningham, someone I’ve taken issue with in the past and who is known for cutting the CCP a lot of slack. Read it, and see why he calls it an “unnecessary tragedy.”

No, the students were no angels, and yes, some angry mobs killed some Chinese soldiers, and yes, the story is in no way black and white. But most of the demonstrators were sincere and they were idealistic and they hoped to make a difference. None deserved to die. The argument that it was all worth it because the CCP then did so much good is depraved. The CCP could have gone on to do all that good stuff and grow the economy without the massacre. Revisionists who see the killings as a good thing are, in my humble opinion, self-deluded and, yes, brainwashed.

Also, if you are new to this blog, check out my post on an interview with a demonstrator from 10 years ago, It’s still among my very favorites, even if I totally disagree with the young man I interviewed.

We don’t have to make a huge deal about this day, but like 9/11, we should never forget it. That’s why every year I’ll say something about it, even if it’s all been said before. And let’s not forget, the CCP can be a benevolent force that can do a lot of good. But when its survival is threatened, something very different can emerge. Things are good now, China’s huge middle class is relatively content. But if things go sour and the people demand change from their government, don’t think what we saw on June 4, 1989 couldn’t happen again. The party will do absolutely everything it needs to to stay in power. Everything. Never forget.

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China’s selective amnesia

I once wrote a post about my talking with one friend after another at the Global Times about what happened at Tiananmen Square 24 years ago, and whether they were familiar with the Tank Man photo. As I reported then, only one friend was familiar with the photo, and said she couldn’t understand why the West saw him as a hero. What he was doing was against the interest of society.

That episode came to mind as I read a piece in the NY Times that you should read, too, on “China’s State-Sponsored Amnesia.” We’ve discussed it here before — the air brushing of the horrors of the Great Leap Forward out of the public record, the erasure of June 4th, the downplaying of Mao’s misdeeds and blunders.

The author, a Chinese writer, sees the manipulation of history as a disaster for China.

The amnesia I’m talking about is the act of deleting memories rather than merely a natural process of forgetting. Forgetting can result from the passage of time. The act of deleting memories, however, is about actively winnowing out people’s memories of the present and the past.

In China, memory deletion is turning the younger generation into selective-memory automatons. Memories of history and the present, yesterday and today are all going through this uniform process of deletion and are being lost without trace.

I used to assume history and memory would always triumph over temporary aberrations and return to their rightful place. It now appears the opposite is true. In today’s China, amnesia trumps memory. Lies are surpassing the truth. Fabrications have become the logical link to fill historical gaps. Even memories of events that have only just taken place are being discarded at a dazzling pace, with barely intelligible fragments all that remain for people to hold on to.

This isn’t exactly new; I’ve been thinking about it for more than ten years now. But I hadn’t really realized the sheer scope of this massive, ongoing state effort to cleanse its people’s neurons and create its own history, almost in real time. After noting the whitewashing of the Cultural Revolution and the 1970 war with Vietnam, the author reminds us that state-sponsored amnesia is with us today, and the goal is always the same: to keep the ruling class in power.

What else is lost to memory? Everything that has happened in recent times: the AIDS epidemic caused by unhygienic blood selling; the innumerable explosions in illegal coal mines; the modern day slavery that takes place in illegal brick kilns; the rampant production of toxic milk powder, toxic eggs, toxic seafood, gutter oil, carcinogenic vegetables and fruit; forced abortions; violent demolitions; mistreatment of petitioners — the list goes on and on.

Anything negative about the country or the regime will be rapidly erased from the collective memory. This memory deletion is being carried out by censoring newspapers, magazines, television news, the Internet and anything that preserves memories.

… The oppression of words and ideas is not unique. It has been exercised by all authoritarian regimes around the world at various times. Under oppression, intellectuals — the people who are supposed to have good memories — are the first to become silent after being administered amnesia by the state. Next comes the general public.

The state prefers the intelligence of its people to remain at the level of children in a kindergarten. It hopes people will follow instructions, just as children follow their teacher’s instructions — they eat when they are told to eat, they sleep when they are told to sleep. When they are asked to perform, these innocent children enthusiastically recite the script prepared by adults.

As you can probably see, this is one scary article. Obviously in recent years the Internet has made it harder to stamp out memories of the more recent outrages and scandals, but the fact remains, most Chinese growing up in the Chinese education system have been denied the knowledge of much of China’s history. And I’m ready for the response that it’s the same in the US. Um, no. We are taught about the disaster of Vietnam, we see television shows about the folly of the Iraq War, we learn how we exterminated the American Indians. Some textbooks may try to put America in the best light possible, but there is no government-mandated effort to uproot history and deny Americans knowledge of their past. It’s all out there for whoever wants to know about it.

This is a long and engrossing article. Let me just quote its last lines:

The late Chinese writer Ba Jin had a dream for preserving memory — to build a museum in China devoted to the Cultural Revolution, the “revolution” that took place in the 1960s and 1970s and turned the nation into a madhouse.

Carrying on Ba Jin’s dream, I also have a naïve hope: I hope one day a memorial to amnesia engraved with all our nation’s painful memories of the last century can be erected on Tiananmen Square.

I believe a truly great people are people who have the courage to remember their own past, and a truly great nation is a nation that has the courage to record its own history.

China so longs for true greatness, it dreams so much of soft power and global influence. But as long as it insists on excising anything negative about its history from the minds of its citizens, it cannot be taken entirely seriously. How can they be taken seriously when they are so afraid of the past, so insecure about the present that they must reshape the truth to avoid any dissent or disharmony? Do they not know that it makes others wary to see how China manipulates its citizens’ minds? Is there any hope that this very basic notion is getting through to anyone at the top? Based on everything I’m hearing and reading, the answer is, for now, no.

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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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Escape from China

As I’ve said before, China can be a wonderful place, as long as you play by its rules. There are many things to praise about the CCP — the one that’s helping bring technology to the countryside, or the one that helps certain (but by no means all) minorities maintain their culture. But as I also have always said, there is more than one CCP. And the CCP you’ll read about in this superb essay by Chinese writer Liao Yiwu is the worst of the worst.

Liao was once imprisoned for daring to write a poem about the government’s harsh handling of the student protestors of 1989, and his books, needless to say, can only be published abroad. After being barred from entering the US to attend a PEN conference, his handlers told him if he tried to go to the airport he would be “disappeared” just like Ai Weiwei.

For a writer, especially one who aspires to bear witness to what is happening in China, freedom of speech and publication mean more than life itself. My good friend, the Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, has paid a hefty price for his writings and political activism. I did not want to follow his path. I had no intention of going back to prison. I was also unwilling to be treated as a “symbol of freedom” by people outside the tall prison walls.

China for him had become a prison in which he was destined to rot. That was unacceptable. He had to write, and he would do whatever he needed to to secure the freedom to express himself.

Only by escaping this colossal and invisible prison called China could I write and publish freely. I have the responsibility to let the world know about the real China hidden behind the illusion of an economic boom — a China indifferent to ordinary people’s simmering resentment.

Escape he does, crossing from a border town in Yunnan to Vietnam, and finally making his way to Berlin, where one of his books is being published. This is a remarkable story of bravery and refusal to be silenced by government terror.

Which leads me to an observation I made in China last week. Somethings seems to have changed. Censorship, which my Chinese friends used to laugh at as a nuisance, has become a front-and-center national issue. As always on these trips, I talk to as many Chinese people as I can about their feelings toward the government. Granted, these spot interviews are thoroughly unscientific, but I have always found them revealing. In the past, most of the responses I got were along the same lines: We don’t really love the government, but it gets things done, and anything it sets its sights on doing will happen. In general, this is a good thing. We don’t love our government but we support it and are proud of our country.

During the run-up to the Olympics I heard more positive things about the government than ever before. People defended it aggressively in light of the riots in Tibet, and national pride seemed to be at its zenith, which wasn’t too surprising. Along with Tibet, this was when AntiCNN began its successful campaign to convince China it was the victim of a vast media conspiracy to make them look bad. Everyone seemed to close ranks and display their love of China, even placing a “heart China” alongside their names on MSN.

Has there been a sea change? Again, this is not scientific in the least, but all I heard this time, from taxi drivers to old colleagues to new friends, was harsh criticism. The one word that permeated each discussion was “Weibo.” Something about the Wenzhou train crash and its harmonization on Weibo seemed to have struck a nerve with many Chinese (and foreigners, too). Finally, suddenly, censorship moved from being a nuisance to outright repression.

The reaction to the cover-up was across the board: the government had lost the trust of its people, and all the glory they were claiming for its new high-speed rail system was built on sand. Some said they would never ride the fast trains now that they know they are unsafe, and they place the entire blame for that on the government. A government that pledged the trains were safe, and then covered up its flaws. And then censored all conversation about it. This was one whammy after another, and the Chinese people seemed to reach a breaking point. And I don’t see how their trust can be re-won.

With sites like Weibo, it’s becoming impossible for the Chinese government to hide under a cloak of secrecy. They can try to stamp out conversations but it will be like whack-a-mole; one will flare up as the other is extinguished. And the more they censor, the more outraged the public will become.

People might be furious at the government, but that doesn’t mean they’re optimistic. The vibe I got was one of outrage mixed with resignation. And for the umpteenth time, I know this was not a representative sample. But it seemed so prevalent, it couldn’t have just been a coincidence that everyone wanted to complain about the handling of Weibo.

The CCP faces a rocky road as it seeks to repair the damage it created for itself. Millions of their people will be watching them, and attempts to silence them all on the microblogs will be an exercise in futility. China’s relationship with its own citizens seems to have entered a new phase, and it will be fascinating to see how it unfolds.

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Tiananmen Square (again?)

I know, it’s been over-discussed and picked over. But China Daily actually has an op-ed piece today on the subject, and it begs for comment. It’s rare to see any mention of this topic at all in the Chinese media, but it’s depressing (though not surprising) to see a story that is totally one-sided.

The gist of it is that the massacre is all a big myth, concocted by a Western press that lies its head off. Everyone’s lying about it. Reporters who I know personally are lying about it. The only ones telling the truth is the government.

Tiananmen remains the classic example of the shallowness and bias in most Western media reporting, and of governmental black information operations seeking to control those media.

The usual Western media conspiracy, always out to harm China.

The editorial’s “argument” is that they found “some reporters in the square at the time” who said they saw no massacre, and that’s good enough for them, despite a mountain of evidence. Case closed.

This is weasly, because as everyone knows by now there was no massacre inside the square, as was first reported during “the fog of war.” Sometimes an uninformed journalist continues to refer to a massacre inside the square, and that is sloppiness. That there were shootings and deaths on side streets and other parts of town on June 4 — in other words, a massacre — is a matter of fact, just as it’s a matter of fact that an angry crowd killed a handful of soldiers. What is not known is how many were killed, but even if it was just a few it’s still a massacre. (My country had its own massacre, Kent State, in which four students were killed. A massacre is a massacre.)

I won’t labor the point with my own interpretation. Instead, let’s just go to some eyewitnesses.

First, Chinese author Ma Jian writes of his interview with a man who was in the crowd who had his arm crushed by a tank and is now an amputee.

“It happened right here,” he told me, “just by these white railings. A tank charged down Changan Avenue, and sprayed tear gas into the air. There was a big crowd of us. We were coughing and choking. We rushed on to the pavement, and I was squashed back against these railings. A girl dropped to her knees. I was grasping the railings with one hand to stop myself falling and with the other I offered her a handkerchief and told her to use it as a mask. Just as I was leaning over to hand it to her, another tank roared up and careered into us. Thirteen people were crushed to death but I only lost my arm. The tank commander knew exactly what he was doing.” He stared down at the patch of asphalt at his feet and then glanced nervously at the police vans parked on the other side of the road. It was rush hour; cars and taxis were streaming past us.

What a terrifying experience, I said, gripping the white railings.

“Yes, it was,” he replied quite calmly. “But I wasn’t truly afraid until I saw Deng Xiaoping on television, telling the martial law troops: ‘Foreigners say that we opened fire, and that I admit, but to claim that army tanks drove over unarmed citizens, that is a disgraceful slur.’ My scalp tightened. I was a living witness to the truth. What if one day they came to get me? … For two years I never dared go out at night, I never spoke about what happened. Policemen came to interrogate me almost every day, but none of us ever mentioned the tanks. Every anniversary of 4 June, the police would come to my house with pillows and mattresses and sleep on my bedroom floor. Just to stop me speaking to foreign journalists.”

Timothy Brook, who received a Ph.D. in History and East Asian Languages at Harvard University and taught in Shanghai:

The first rounds of fire catch everybody by surprise. The people in the streets don’t expect this to happen. There are a couple of hospitals right near Muxidi, and the casualties start showing up within 10 or 15 minutes of the first round of gunfire. The casualties run very high because people didn’t expect to be shot at with live ammunition. When they start firing, people say, “Oh, it’s rubber bullets.” Even after it becomes clear, even after they realize that the army is going to go ahead at any cost, people still pour into the streets. This is the amazing thing: People were just so angry, so furious at what was happening in their city that they were not going to step back and let the army do what it was doing. This is why the casualties from Muxidi on east towards Tiananmen Square were so high. This is the major military confrontation of the evening.

Self-described former Maoist and reporter for the Globe and Mail Jan Wong (same link as above):

That Saturday night the army started coming in … the city, and so the people rushed out again. This was becoming a regular occurrence: Every time people said, “The army’s coming,” everybody would rush out and stop them. And they rushed out this time, except the army shot them, and so they started running down the alleyways.

People in [the Muxidi] apartment buildings could hear all this. It was summertime and the windows were open, so they heard the gunfire; they heard people screaming; and they saw the soldiers shooting at people. They would lean out their windows and scream at the soldiers and curse them and throw things. I had that feeling myself. I wanted to throw things out the window of the Beijing Hotel because you just felt anger: “Why are you doing this to the people?” …

What they did was they just raked the buildings with their gunfire, and they were shooting people. People were being killed in their own kitchens because these bullets were very lethal. … They just shot at them because they were trying to get into the city. They had been ordered to take Tiananmen, and they were going to get there no matter what it took.

From Dr. Jiang Yanyong, the whistleblower who blew the cover of the conspiracy to convince the world there was no SARS in Beijing, and who was later harassed for his efforts:

I was chief of the department of general surgery on June 4, 1989. On the night of June 3, I heard repeated broadcasts urging people to stay off the streets. At about 10 p.m., I was in my apartment when I heard the sound of continuous gunfire from the north. Several minutes later, my pager beeped. It was the emergency room calling me, and I rushed over. What I found was unimaginable–on the floor and the tables of the emergency room were seven young people, their faces and bodies covered with blood. Two of them were later confirmed dead by EKG. My head buzzed and I nearly passed out. I had been a surgeon for more than 30 years. I had treated wounded soldiers before, while on the medical team of the PLA railway corps that built the Chengdu-Kunming Railway. But their injuries resulted from unavoidable accidents during the construction process, while before my eyes, in Beijing, the magnificent capital of China, lying in front of me, were our own people, killed by our people’s army, with weapons supplied by the people.

Even eyewitness Philip Cunningham, who often supports the CCP, wrote of that day,

The Tiananmen demonstrations were crushed, cruelly, breaking the implicit pact that the People’s Liberation Army would never turn its guns on the people and burying student activism for many years to come, but not before inspiring millions in China and around the world to push for reform and change, heralding the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

The editorial repeats all the cliches of the deniers. Referring to a book by Philip Cunningham, it says:

It quotes one of the student leaders, Chai Ling, as having said that creating a “sea of blood” might be the only way to shake the government. If frustrated students leaving the square carried out those petrol bomb attacks on troops, then the anger of the government becomes a lot more understandable. But I doubt whether any of those responsible for the original phony story will get round to details like that.

There were some attacks on troops, and that hasn’t been denied. But most of the demonstrators leaving the square did so peacefully. Most of the shooting was not in response to petrol bomb attacks. And one foolish and out-of-context quote from Chai Ling does not make for an excuse for a massacre. Blogger Xu Eberlein, one of my favorites, adds some nuance:

Reading excerpts of the newly published Tiananmen Moon by Philip Cunningham, the very journalist who interviewed Chai Ling 20 years ago, made me feel that Chai Ling might have been more innocent than some have thought. Although her idea of using bloodshed to arouse people was hardly a moral one, she appeared to be sincere and serious about the student movement and was indignant toward some other selfish power-thirsty student leaders. As such, I’d like to believe the young Chai Ling twenty years ago was a humanly imperfect idealist, as young activists are. If she sometimes took herself too importantly, it was largely because of the situation: being young and the leader of a mass movement can carry anyone away.

I can go on and on with more testimony from reporters and Chinese citizens who were all there and whose stories are strikingly similar. I can cite the Tiananmen Mothers. There is no shortage of proof. And this isn’t about whether the students were right or wrong, or whether there was or wasn’t violence on both sides. There remain many unanswered questions about June 4, and there’s no doubt blame on all sides. And there’s no doubt that in the confusion and violence there were contradictory stories that got large public play (just as we saw after the killing of Bin Laden). Fog of war. There are myths, such as reports of a massacre inside the square. But the fact remains, many peaceful citizens who had left the square were fired upon in back alleys and many died. Hundreds? A thousand? We’ll never know, but the CCP, which keeps meticulous records, does know.

It’s good that China Daily is at least discussing the subject. A pity it’s the same old China-as-victim, Western-media-as-villain nonsense.

June 4th may not mean much to most Chinese today, and even those who were directly involved have moved on, and some would rather just forget about it. I understand that. But truth is truth, history is history, facts are facts. The CD editorial is another effort to bury the truth and cast all the blame on foreign media. This is an easy out, and is used whenever China has something to hide. Claiming all the media are lying seems kind of crazy. It’s a conspiracy theory, as nutty as claims by some that China is conspiring to take over the world. Do they really believe all the reporters and eyewitnesses colluded to mislead the world? Only China would make a claim like that.

Update: Gotta love this line from the comments:

The Chinese press is truely independent from the truth and our wise leaders make sure that there is no wrong or incorrect information in the news. This is the correct and scientific way with Chinese characteristics. And it makes me proud to be a Chinese.

I am assuming this is parody. At least I hope it is.

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Tianamen’s ghost alive and well; Foursquare banned in China

Gady Epstein on China’s decision yesterday to ban Foursquare nationwide after it was used to arrange gatherings at Tiananmen Square:

The blocking of Foursquare, while perhaps temporary, is yet another reminder that the Communist Party of China is serious about controlling history, as I wrote about last year at this time, and is just as serious about controlling the dangers of Web 2.0. Chinese social networking services are in self-censorship mode today — in the case of the portal Sina, even removing emoticons of candles and flowers from its microblog. To some extent the party’s strategy has been successful: Many in China, especially younger generations, have little clue what happened 21 years ago on June 4. Of those that do remember, some unknown percentage — perhaps a quite high percentage — have chosen not to care too deeply, a sort of willed forgetting in service of today’s prosperity that author Chan Koon Chung broaches in his Chinese novel “The Fat Years.”

….Those who choose to remember, meanwhile, continue to do so today — in various ways on the Chinese Internet, quite brazenly on Foursquare, Twitter and Facebook for those who use a VPN or proxy service to get around the Great Firewall, and many in their own quiet ways offline. Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou’s issued a statement today, translated here, asking that Beijing “sincerely confront the major human rights incident of June Fourth.” Hong Kong holds its annual march and candlelight vigil tonight. Up to 50,000 people there are expected to show that they choose not to forget.

All of those who insist the Chinese people don’t care about this anymore leave out this key point: today’s apathy and indifference toward the incident is government-induced. Epstein in the above article calls it “willed forgetting.” I left the following comment on this topic over at Elliott Ng’s excellent post today:

The only point I disagree with is that it’s been forgotten due to “the busyness of life.” In neighboring Hong Kong there are still sizable demonstrations, and the world still remembers the day vividly. Just look at twitter last night. It is only where the incident has been filtered out of the search engines and banned from any discussion in the media that it is forgotten. The Nanjing Massacre is not forgotten, and those remembering it are just as busy as those forgetting the TSM. Out of sight, out of mind. Gady is spot on – this is willed forgetfulness, and the one doing the willing is the government. That is the high price that comes with a one-party authoritarian state; Big Brother controls the brainwaves and can convince people that ignorance is strength and freedom is slavery.

[Also via Elliott, whose post offers an array of excellent links, I found these superb photos from 1989 over at Slate. Highly recommended.]

I got quite annoyed at myself several days ago when I put up a post on Tibet and gave a finger-wagging lecture about how whenever China censors and cracks down on basic liberties it tells the world it is still a weak country, insecure and in the grip of a seemingly unending inferiority complex. I got so annoyed at my own self-righteousness I deleted it. But I look at this story and I think, maybe it’s not too harsh or self-righteous. It may come across that way, especially when Westerners say it, but it still needs to be said.

As China embarks on an expensive and ambitious campaign to build up its soft power, it should look right here, at this sort of behavior. Soft power is all about hearts and minds. The US sacrificed much of its own soft power under Bush, and you’d think China would learn from that. Bullying and suppressing aren’t good strategies for winning global admiration.

Update: CDT has some great articles, videos and photos on its site, which today is bathed in black. You must go see those videos (like this one). No wonder the whole incident has been hermetically sealed and locked away.

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New report on Tiananmen Square “incident” traces hundreds of the dead, wounded and imprisoned

Go to this page and check out the PDF file. This is not a summary of all those who were killed and wounded, just a sliver. The report was released in Chinese last year and the English translation was made available today. From the summary:

Compiled from available information, including the Tiananmen Mothers’ database, as well as in-person interviews, the report tells the stories of 195 people who were killed in the June Fourth crackdown, and provides information on 57 people who were wounded or disabled, and more than 800 individuals who have been imprisoned or detained in Reeducation-Through-Labor institutions for offenses related to the crackdown in more than a dozen provinces, including the seven people still in prison today….

“This report is an invaluable resource for those who want to understand the on-going human costs of the June Fourth crackdown, and an important tool for promoting official accountability,” said Sharon Hom, Executive Director of HRIC.

Those killed were men, women and children from all walks of life, including students, peasants, truck drivers, performers, engineers, peddlers and even a party secretary and deputy to the Beijing People’s Congress. They were from major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, and as far away as Liaoning Province. The report provides their personal details: names, ages, home locations, occupations, circumstances surrounding their deaths, family backgrounds, and information on surviving family members.

The youngest victim was Lu Peng, a 9-year-old third grade student (#34) who was shot in the chest by martial law troops around midnight, June 3-4, and died immediately. The oldest was Zhang Fuyuan, a 66-year-old retired hospital worker and Communist Party member (#166) who was working as a guard in a construction site of the Design Institute of the Ministry of Metallurgical Industry. On the evening of June 3, Zhang was among a group of residents near Changanjie who were chased and fired upon by martial law troops as they ran into a hutong.

Other victims include Zhang Jian, 17-year-old high school student (#181) who was shot in the heart by soldiers on his way to see his uncle and aunt on June 4 and was dead on arrival at the Peking Union Medical college Hospital; and Dai Wei, a 20-year-old cook in the Beijing Roast Duck Restaurant (#42) who was shot in the back on his way to work on the evening of June 3 and died in the early morning of June 4 in the Post and Communications Hospital.

In the report, Jiang tells of families of the dead who never received any compensation or even official accounts of how their loved ones died. These families have never even been allowed to openly mourn their deaths.

As for the living, the report provides the names of the more than 800 prisoners identified, and more detailed information on many of them, such as lengths and types of sentences and locations of imprisonment, offenses of which they were convicted, and age, occupation, home location and other personal details. The report also tells the story of many who have been released from prison but have not been able to find work, and continue to suffer economically, politically and psychologically.

Human Rights in China urges the Chinese authorities to respond to the appeal in this report for an official re-examination of the events and to the Tiananmen Mothers’ call for investigation, compensation, accountability, and dialogue.

To my friends who find this dull, repetitious and water under the bridge, please move on. For me, this remains an open wound, and as long as the CCP keeps stonewalling, the much beloved phrase “Reform and Opening Up” will ring at least partially hollow. Those who keep demanding more contrition from the Japanese for their crimes against humanity should demand the same from their own rulers. I’m not saying the TSM was anywhere near the scale of the Nanjing Massacre, but murder is murder.

Update: Amnesty International’s blog tells us what’s going on in Hong Kong today:

Commemorative activities organized by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China (The Alliance) were brought to an abrupt halt by police on May 29th and 30th.

The organizers had followed procedures for regulating public assemblies, but the police claimed additional ‘entertainment’ licenses were required, confiscated exhibits including two statues of the Goddess of Democracy and arrested 15 people.

Amnesty released a public statement commemorating today’s anniversary, in which we condemned the Chinese authorities’ efforts to cover up the massacre and bring those responsible into investigation. Furthermore, we continue to urge the Chinese government to stop suppressing citizens who exercise their fundamental rights to freedom of expression.

Three cheers for One Country, Two Systems.

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21 years ago today….

goddessofdemocracy

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.

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Top 5 China events of the decade (for me)

A week ago the Shanghaiist asked me if I’d prepare an end-of-year or end-of-decade list of what were for me the top 5 China-related event.

Now that the post has been up on their site a few days, I’m reprinting it here for posterity. These are not necessarily the most important things that happened. The Sichuan earthquake, for example, is more important than some of my other choices. There were too many to choose from, like Sun Zhigang, the tainted milk scandal and Hu’s tremendously important strides in bringing Africa closer to China. Instead, these are the items that touched me on a very personal level, inspiring me to feel joy or outrage, hope or gloom.

From Shanghaiist:

Richard Burger worked in Greater China (mostly the PRC) as a PR executive for more than six years, the last few months of which he spent as editor and columnist for the English-language Chinese daily newspaper The Global Times. He is also the author of one of the oldest and most respected China blogs, The Peking Duck

What a difference ten years has made for China, from the new kid on the block to one of the world’s most influential movers and shakers. Since 2000, China has turned the notion of “New World Order” on its head.

During those 10 years we’ve watched China experience some breathtaking highs and painful lows. I first started watching China early in 2001, when I moved from the US to Hong Kong, and still remember exactly where I was and how I felt when I heard the big news that made it to No.1 on my Personal Five Most Significant China Stories of the decade.

1. July 13, 2001: Beijing is named host city for 2008 Olympic Games

This announcement created a wave of euphoria that only intensified as the Opening Ceremony approached. From the moment it was reported until the Olympic Green was locked down at the end of August 2008 we’ve never seen so many people so motivated for so many years over a sports competition. Nothing since has ever topped this one.

2. April 20, 2003: Chinese government holds live on-air SARS press conference

I know, that sounds kind of dry. But if you were there watching it live you’ll know just how jaw-dropping it was. Some of the world’s most tight-lipped, rarely seen leaders took live questions from the international media pool in Beijing and revealed there were hundreds more known cases of SARS in Beijing than they’d admitted earlier. Afterwards, the minister of health and the mayor of Beijing were fired for negligence of duty and the May holiday was canceled to keep people from traveling. Live and in person, we watched China’s government realize that being a global power demands accountability.

3. April 7, 2008: A Chinese hero is born

It couldn’t have been better scripted by the propaganda department: A graceful young woman, an Olympic torchbearer confined to a wheelchair, is attacked in full public view in Paris by a pro-Tibet activist determined to grab the Olympic torch from her hands. She refuses to yield, using her body to protect the torch as if it were a child. The timing was incredible: China was reeling from criticism of its handling of ethnic tension in Tibet, and photos of the emotionally charged scene galvanized the global Chinese community and created a groundswell of national pride just when China needed it. This sense of commonality and closing rank was to be matched only by the volunteerism generated by the Sichuan earthquake the next month – a close runner-up for this list.

4. June 16, 2009: Chinese court frees Deng Yujiao

The release of Deng Yujiao, the 21-year-old Chinese karaoke waitress turned folk hero who stabbed to death a drunken party official who tried to force her to have sex, resonated with everyone in China. Originally found guilty of murder, her plight captured the imagination of Chinese activists and netizens and her release was historic, proving that with enough pressure from an energized and outraged public the Chinese government will respond to injustices that in the past were swept under the carpet. We’ll know in the year ahead if it truly marked a turning point.

5. June 2009 – present: Post-Olympic communication crackdown

After opening its Internet more than ever before for the 2008 Olympic Games, China took a sharp swerve in the opposite direction the next year. The ominous clouds of heightened censorship moved in prior to the 20th anniversary of the “Tiananamen Square Incident” with the banning of Chinese and English-language social media sites and it kept getting worse right through the October 1 festivities, with no end in sight to this day. Many had misread the April 20, 2003 press conference as a sign China was ready to open up. In some ways it has, but the Internet remains more censored than ever.

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I know we all have our different picks for a list like this. So feel free to suggest your own.

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