Liu Xiaobo

Readers of this blog need no introduction to Liu Xiaobo, his life or his death. I just wanted to take a moment to reflect on his passing several days ago, and to share my thoughts on what his plight tells us about the CCP and the perils of being an activist in today’s China.

Liu was an outspoken advocate for human rights, and was sharply critical of the CCP and the stultifying effect the government had on all aspects of Chinese life, including its intellectuals and authors. Liu was persistently critical of writers in China who, he felt, had lost their ability to think for themselves. From the single best tribute I’ve read on Liu’s life and death, by the great China Hand Perry Link:

“I can sum up what’s wrong with Chinese writers in one sentence,” Liu Xiaobo wrote in 1986. “They can’t write creatively themselves—they simply don’t have the ability—because their very lives don’t belong to them.”

Often in his writing Liu deliberately stuck his thumb into the government’s eye. He was a fierce critic of the CCP’s stranglehold on its people’s psyche and he was not afraid to say so. This became most obvious in his Charter 08, a manifesto calling for democratic reforms. It was to seal his fate, leading to his arrest and 11-year prison sentence for subversion. But even thirty years before that Liu showed just how courageous he could be, after he rushed back to Beijing from New York in March of 1989 to support the students demonstrating in Tiananmen Square.

As the movement lurched towards disaster, Liu tried to reason with the students to tone down their protests and return to their classes. When the army arrived, Liu negotiated with them to allow protesters to leave the square peacefully. In the aftermath, he was arrested and imprisoned until January 1991.

“From the moment I walked out of the Square, my heart has been heavy, after all that bloodshed on June 4th. I’ve never gotten over this,” he said, afterwards.

The government has done a splendid job slandering Liu and destroying his reputation. The brutal 11-year sentence shocked the world and led to his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. The CCP-controlled media refer to him as a “criminal” and rage against the West for idealizing him. A particularly odious editorial in the Global Times lashes out at those outside China who dare to look favorably on Liu:

Since Liu’s medical parole was made public, the Chinese side has been focusing on Liu’s treatment, but some Western forces are always attempting to steer the issue in a political direction, hyping the treatment as a “human rights” issue. US and German authorities have also chimed in.

Obviously, outside disturbances were of no help to Liu’s treatment. It is common sense that a critically ill patient should not be informed of disputes surrounding him that may arouse emotional upheaval, but the West was unwilling to care about Liu’s condition.

Liu’s last days were politicized by the forces overseas. They used Liu’s illness as a tool to boost their image and demonize China. They aren’t really interested in prolonging Liu’s life. While Chinese doctors were doing their best to save Liu, they clamored and asked the critically ill patient to be transferred abroad only to show their so-called “sympathy.”

Liu’s jail sentence is a solemn ruling of the Chinese law. Liu was diagnosed with cancer in jail, and the prison authorities granted him medical parole and provided him with humanitarian treatment. These are all facts. The various speculations from the West will vanish soon….

Liu lived in an era when China witnessed the most rapid growth in recent history, but he attempted to confront Chinese mainstream society under Western support. This has determined his tragic life. Even if he could live longer, he would never have achieved his political goals that are in opposition to the path of history.

Right, the government saw to it that Liu was given “humanitarian treatment.” Right, his goals of democratic reforms and human rights are “in opposition to the path of history.” It’s when we read pieces like this that we are reminded just how thuggish and brutal China’s government can be. I have tried over the years to give the Party the benefit of the doubt and to point out some of the good they have done for their people. But the fact remains they are an authoritarian government that at times displays all the characteristics of a police state. And since Xi came to power, more and more activists, and even their lawyers, have been thrown into prison. Now they continue to harass Liu’s widow, who remains under house arrest. (That’s a shocking atricle.) China under Xi is a thugocracy. You’re fine if you keep your mouth shut. But once you call attention to yourself by speaking out, God help you. The Party will crush you like an insect.

Many years ago I called China “the evil empire.” (And if you never read that post, I strongly recommend it, even though my assessment of the CCP has softened since I wrote it 14 years ago.) For all their efforts to show us a peaceful and humane China, for all their attempts to strengthen the country’s “soft power,” little has changed.

Three years ago we witnessed another CCP crime against humanity when they arrested and sentenced to prison for life a moderate Uighur professor, Ilham Tohti, who advocated peaceful solutions to China’s conflicts with the Uighurs. Life imprisonment. This was an obvious attempt to “kill the chicken to scare the monkey.” How can activists dare to speak truth to power when they see that their lives can in effect be snuffed out even for a peaceful call for modest reforms?

China longs to be seen as a peaceful and benevolent world power. But we cannot be fooled. It remains a morally bankrupt and semi-totalitarian state. Yes, there have been reforms, yes, people there enjoy a degree of freedom unthinkable a mere 30 years ago, and yes, the majority of Chinese would most likely vote for the CCP if elections were to be held today (is there any viable alternative?). But don’t deny that it remains a police state. Just ask Professor Tothi. Just ask Liu Xia.

Western-style democracy may not be the answer. (Look at who we elected as our own president.) But greater adherence to the rule of law is a necessary step for China to be seen as a free country. And let me add that I understand why some would be critical of Liu Xiaobo for pointing to the West as an example for China, for pointing to Hong Kong as an example of how colonization by the West would be a good thing for China, and for being in favor of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But that is all irrelevant. Liu should never have been thrown into prison. China has once again shown the world how paranoid, frightened and cowardly they can be. No government that isn’t terrified of the slightest opposition would ever sink to such a level of moral depravity. It cannot be forgotten or forgiven, despite the Global Times’ assertion that the West’s outrage over Liu’s plight “will vanish soon.” Let them believe that. The world remains shocked and appalled at Liu’s treatment, and history will not forget the CCP’s malfeasances.

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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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The June 4th Incident

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.

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Is it a police state?

The best post I ever wrote (and I realize that’s not saying very much) is this one. Its simple point is that underneath a veneer of happiness, prosperity and optimism there can lurk a much darker and more dangerous side. People can be content and appreciate their government while being oblivious — willfully or not — to what it is going on beneath the surface.

There have been a rash of articles in recent months of a severe crackdown in China on civil rights lawyers, professors, journalists and activists. A story from yesterday drove this home:

As the year came to a close, at least seven prominent Chinese human rights lawyers rang in the New Year from a jail cell. Under President Xi Jinping, 2014 was one of the worst years in recent memory for China’s embattled civil society. Bookending the year were the cases of two prominent legal advocates: in January, Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to four years imprisonment for his moderate criticism of government policy and leading the “New Citizens’ Movement,” a group advocating for political reforms in China. Outspoken free speech lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who turns 50 tomorrow, has spent the past six months in detention as authorities continue to build a case against him.

But that’s just for starters. A few days earlier a reporter for the German magazine Die Zeit wrote a harrowing article on how her Chinese assistant was arrested after they returned from Hong Kong where they were covering the Occupy Central demonstrations. Not every article is “must read,” but this one is. I can already hear apologists saying the assistant brought it on herself because she posted images from the scene on social media, and she wore a yellow ribbon showing her solidarity with the demonstrators. In other words, she should have realized China is a police state and not pushed the envelope.

What is a police state? To me, it is any nation whose security apparatus can arrest and hold anyone with no accountability. A police state has no rule of law to speak of. It uses terror, however subtle, to keep the public in line and stifle dissent. As we all know, only four months ago a moderate professor in Xinjiang was sentenced to life in prison for advocating equal rights for the region’s minorities. This is an act of terror, a warning that advocates for change, however peaceful, are putting their lives at risk.

it is not just a war on dissent, but on any form of self-expression that the government sees as harmful. Even children’s libraries are being shut down for encouraging “subversion.”

The libraries are among the victims of a sweeping orthodoxy laid down by President Xi Jinping, who continues to consolidate his power. While crackdowns on budding expression here come and go, the new variant is spreading its net more widely, ensnaring even prominent moderate voices.

In recent weeks and months, scholars have seen their books banned after they voiced sympathy for pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong; artists with independent ideas have been silenced; lawyers representing political prisoners have been locked up; and human rights campaigners and civil society activists have been detained by the hundreds.

The Chinese government has to be credited for doing good, for improving many of its citizens’ lives, for overseeing the lifting of hundreds of millions from poverty. If elections were held today and the CCP ran against another party (though there is no other party), the CCP would win. Why then is there such a tenacious campaign to silence any perceived threat to the state, even to the point of locking up lawyers whose only “crime” was representing dissidents? We’ve gone over this before and the answer is the same: the government’s primary objective is to stay in power, and in their minds having a “harmonious” society with no one speaking out is key to maintaining their grip. I’ve been blogging about that since the early days of this site 12 years ago. But now under Xi the problem is worsening, the net is being cast wider and the punishments are more severe.

Most Chinese citizens can live with this limitation on their freedom of self expression. They have more personal freedoms and are free to make money, and they have no reason to cross the red line and question their government. Personal freedoms, yes. Political freedoms, not so much. I have had three friends woken up in the middle of the night, a black hood placed over their heads and taken by the PSB to shabby hotel rooms where they were held for days in one case and months in another. The security apparatus is always watching and no one who is perceived as rocking the boat is safe. What is this if not a police state?

Critics who are perceived as threatening the monolithic portrait of China that its rulers try so hard (and so successfully) to cultivate are an existential threat. And it is getting worse under Xi. I remember so clearly how some 12 years ago the Chinese blogosphere expressed great hopes that newly sworn-in Hu Jintao was going to be a reformer who would usher in an age of greater transparency and openness. There was such a promising beginning when, in the spring of 2003, the government came clean about its cover-up of the SARS epidemic and even held a televised press conference to answer reporters’ questions, including foreign correspondents. Hu went on, of course, to strengthen repression and censorship.

I realize this post, my first in months, is a bit all over the place, but I want to address one related topic, and that is the question of whether Chinese people have been brainwashed by their government. This is a tricky topic because the answer is not black and white; maybe the answer is yes and no.

I know many educated, urbane young Chinese people (young being under 40) who are highly critical of their government. Most if not all say that while they respect the strength of the government in its ability to get things done, they have serious issues with the CCP. They hate its censorship of the Internet and its hysterical pursuit of “harmony.” They hate its propaganda. And yet, these same people all have one thing in common: when asked about certain topics they go into automatic pilot and recite a script that is remarkably similar. When asked about Taiwan, they say it must be returned to China, like a baby returning to its mother’s arms. On Tibet, everything is the fault of the Dalai Lama and his clique that tries to undo all the great things the government has done for the Tibetan people (roads, schools, the end of serfdom).

In her wonderful book The People’s Republic of Amnesia, journalist Louisa 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.

However disappointing the leadership of Hu Jintao was, under Xi it is only getting worse. I could post hundreds of links to stories of his regime’s cracking down on dissenting voices. His government is doing all it can to silence these voices and keep its people brainwashed, at least politically. I said the answer to whether the Chinese are brainwashed is “yes and no.” On most issues, they are not; those I know are free thinking, successful, open-minded people. But most of them know when to shut up and to avoid discussing certain uncomfortable topics. And nearly all have certain scripts, tapes they turn on when asked about sensitive topics like the three T’s. (Japan is another topic where the tape gets turned on.)

China doesn’t look like a police state. Bustling and prospering, with plenty of artists free to express themselves, and with greater and greater personal freedoms, it looks quite open. But ask Liu Xiaobo whether China is a police state. Ask Ilham Tohti, languishing in prison for the rest of his life, whether it’s a police state. Ask some of those hundreds of activists and civil rights lawyers. There is much more to China than meets the eye. It’s a glorious, wonderful country, my favorite place on earth after the US because its people and its culture are so magnificent. But when you pull the curtain back there is a lot of bad stuff happening, too, and if you only see the good you are not seeing China in its entirety.

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Writing “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited”

That’s the ingenious title of a new book by NPR correspondent Louisa Lim, who I had the pleasure of working with briefly when I was working on a project in Shanghai in 2010. I just ordered it and plan to review it soon. But the story of how Lim wrote this book is remarkable and bears mentioning now; it brings to light just how dangerous a topic Tiananmen Square remains for journalists today. Lim tells the story in a Washington Post article from earlier this week. I can’t urge you strongly enough to read it all. So intent is China on wiping out all recollections of the Tiananmen Square violence of June 4 that Lim had to go to extraordinary measures to keep her book secret while she was writing it.

I wrote my book on a brand-new laptop that had never been online. Every night I locked it in a safe in my apartment. I never mentioned the book on the phone or in e-mail, at home or in the office — both located in the same Beijing diplomatic compound, which I assumed was bugged. I took these extreme measures because I was writing about that most taboo of topics in China: the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989, when soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilians on the streets of Beijing, killing hundreds of people, maybe even more than 1,000.

I stuck to my rules doggedly. When I decided to throw out the structure I had outlined in my proposal and take a completely different approach, I waited until I left China months later to tell my patient editor. I didn’t tell any of my colleagues what I was working on in my off-hours. For weeks I didn’t even tell my children — then ages 7 and 5 — for fear they might blurt something out at home. Later on, when they began to ask why I didn’t have time to play, I swore them to secrecy.

Lim describes how this year’s crackdown on any attempts to commemorate the killings is being clamped down on early, with activists being arrested weeks in advance. She describes the arrest of five attendees at a “June 4 commemorative seminar,” and notes how one Chinese newspaper reported on the seminar:

Of the seminar, a state-run newspaper, the Global Times, wrote dismissively, “It is obvious that such an event, which is related to the most sensitive political issue in China, has clearly crossed the red line of law.

At least they admit there is a thick red line when it comes to Tiananmen Square. It appears this year it’s thicker than ever. To cross it is to violate Chinese law (though I’m not sure which law that is).

Lim’s book is a series of portraits of witnesses and participants in the Tiananmen Square massacre, including a former PLA soldier from the unit charged with clearing the square. She even tells the little-known story of the crackdown on student protestors in Chengdu. Lim’s book and a second book are the subjects of an exhaustive review in The NY Review of Books. It is a more thorough, detail-rich review than I could ever write, so I strongly recommend it.

Another piece in the NYROB examines this year’s crackdowns and how people are being arrested simply for talking about June 4th. This article focuses on activists determined to speak out, and how the government deals with them. Also highly recommended, if painfully grim.

A couple of years ago a blogger I respect put up a post about how he wasn’t writing about the TSM anymore, that it had been covered enough already and that there was nothing to add at this point. I respect and understand that. For me, however, the massacre is an exposed nerve and I can never forget my own surges of emotion, from hope to elation to disbelief to despair as I watched the story unfold. For thousands of Chinese citizens who remember it, the wound has never healed; some of them are even willing to go to prison for their efforts to keep the memory alive. Yet the government is more determined than ever to silence all voices. The censors, Lim writes, are in overdrive this milestone year.

China’s online censors are busy scrubbing allusions, no matter how elliptical, to June 4. As the anniversary nears, judging by precedents set in recent years, the list of banned words and terms will grow to include “64,” “today,” “that year,” “in memory of” and even “sensitive word.” History is apparently so dangerous that China’s version of Wikipedia, Baidu Baike, does not have an entry for the entire year of 1989.

As I have written before, this obsessive mission to delete the protests and crackdowns from China’s collective memory speaks to just how insecure and fearful the CCP remains, even now, when China is doing well and there is no risk of a popular uprising anytime soon. Why are they so afraid? Whatever the reason, the story of the Tiananmen Square protests and the ensuing violence are an indelible part of China’s history, and whether the Party likes it or not, many voices will be raised to keep the memory alive. The vigorous crackdowns this year only make those who have an interest in China more determined to seek the truth about June 4th.

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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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