Posts tagged: 1989

As the Sun Rises on Tiananmen

Bird’s eye view of Tiananmen Square

On Sunday, the sun will rise once again on Tiananmen Square, much like it did on the same Sunday 28 years ago.  But unlike that Sunday – June 4, 1989 – Beijing will not awaken to its city occupied by the Chinese military nor the streets surrounding Tiananmen Square littered with the dead bodies of unarmed civilians.

Instead, life will go on in China with no official acknowledgement of the anniversary of that fateful day 28 years ago when the Chinese government ordered its military to open fire on its own people. The exact number of people killed the night of June 3, 1989 into the early morning hours of June 4 is only known to the perpetrators of the massacre: the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”). But whether it was a few hundred or a few thousand does not diminish the fact that peaceful protests were squashed with such a violent – and unnecessary – crackdown.

Hundreds of thousands gather on Tiananmen Square, June 2, 1989 (Photo courtesy of CNN.com)

Contrary to the CCP’s interpretation of events, the protests in Beijing were not counter-revolutionary attempts to undermine the CCP. And contrary to the Western media’s perceptions at the time, it was not an effort to bring Western democracy to China.  Instead, the protests were deeply rooted in China’s own history and tradition, a tradition of students conducting patriotic demonstrations in an effort to strengthen their country.

In 1989, those efforts were directed at the nepotism and corruption that was beginning to plague the CCP, the economic turmoil brought on by inflation, the lack of personal freedoms and government censorship.  While students started the protests, eventually, much of the populace joined in, with workers going on strike to support the movement.  By mid-May, the protests would draw over a million people on a daily basis. Neither the May 19 declaration of martial law nor the pleading by sympathetic leaders for protesters to clear the square stopped the protests.  And on June 3, 1989, Deng Xiaoping gave the order for the army to fire on the civilians.

Tanks roll onto Tiananmen Square, June 4, 1989

For a brief time after the crackdown, the CCP did acknowledge the event. Not to celebrate the brave men and women who gave their lives to better their country, but to condemn them. Slowly, however, the CCP’s policy changed and instead of trying to change the narrative of that night, the CCP chose to forget it.  Today, the Tiananmen massacre is largely scrubbed from the Chinese internet, it is not allowed to be discussed openly and many of the children born after 1989 do not know of the truth of that night.

But every year, there are still those in China willing to risk their freedom to commemorate the violent crackdown on Tiananmen Square.  A few years ago it was Chinese netizens reposting the image of the Tank Man – the Chinese citizen stopping a line of tanks, a banned picture on the Chinese internet – standing in front of a line of large, yellow rubber ducks.  The picture spread on the Chinese internet until the Chinese authorities got wind, and censored “yellow rubber duck.”  This year, it is four men who produced a Chinese rice wine with a label that references “6*4”, a shorthand for the June 4 crackdown, and calls on people to “never forget.”  While the bottle has been smuggled out of China by a sympathetic Chinese official, those four men are currently facing charges of inciting subversion of state power.

As much as the CCP may try, China will not forget the brave men and women who lost their lives on June 4, 1989.  For there are still enough Chinese people who are willing to put their safety on the line to ensure that that does not happen.

25 Years After Tiananmen – Same, Same But Different

The Goddess of Democracy - the symbol of the Tiananmen Square Protests

The Goddess of Democracy – the symbol of the Tiananmen Square Protests

Twenty-five years ago, on the night of June 3 and into the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, tanks rolled in to the streets of Beijing and the Chinese government did the unthinkable: it opened fire on its own people, killing hundreds if not thousands of unarmed civilians in the streets surrounding Tiananmen Square.  That violent crackdown marked the end of seven weeks of student-led, peaceful protests in the Square itself, protests that were supported by much of the rest of Beijing, protests that would amass hundreds of thousands of people a day, protests that people wistfully thought would change China.

Twenty-five years later the students who participated in the protests are no longer fresh-faced, wide-eyed college kids, the workers who supported them are retired, and many of the bicycle rickshaw drivers who ferried dying students to hospitals on that bloody Sunday morning are long gone.  Along Chang’An Avenue, glitzy buildings have replaced the blood and bullet holes.  Starbucks stand near where students once went on hunger strikes. Tiananmen is different; China is different.  But yet there are some things that remain the same.

The government that ordered the crackdown 25 years ago – the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”) – is still in power and many of the gripes that initiated the student protests – corruption and nepotism among political elites, lack of personal freedoms, and government censorship – have only gotten worse and continue to be the impetuous for activists.  And, like the students in 1989, these activists are still willing to risk their lives to promote the values enshrined in the Chinese Constitution and guide China to become a better place for its people.

But make no mistake, while these factors might be the same, there are important aspects of China that have changed.  In

Hundreds of thousands of Beijing residents - students, workers, ordinary people - supported the protests.

Hundreds of thousands of Beijing residents – students, workers, ordinary people – supported the protests.

particular, China’s rise as a global power.  Criticizing China for human rights violations and its failure to live up to its own laws is not as easy as it was in 1989 when President George H.W. Bush cut off government ties, military relations, and the sale of U.S. government goods the day after the Chinese government’s crackdown.  Imagine denying U.S. businesses the opportunity to sell products to the world’s second largest economy?  That would never happen today.  And to severe relations with China – would the American public want to so easily give up its cheap Walmart goods or be denied the ability to obtain the newest iPhone?  Probably not.  The Chinese government understands the soothing and influential comforts of our material desires.

But perhaps the most troublesome change is how the CCP now deals with dissent.  If the last few months are any guide, excessive violence continues to be the modus operandi of the CCP.  Cao Shunli (pronounced Ts-ow Shoon-lee), an activist who organized small, peaceful protests that called for citizen participation in China’s United Nations human rights review, was detained for “picking quarrels and causing trouble,” was denied medical treatment for months, and died in police custody.  Tang Jitian (pronounced Tang Jee tee-an), a disbarred-lawyer-now-activist that sought to assist Falun Gong practitioners, has recounted the physical torture he suffered while in police custody in March.  Since coming out of detention with 16 broken ribs, Tang has all but effectively been denied appropriate medical care for his tuberculosis which has gotten significantly worse.

Deaths of many protesters lined the streets surrounding the Square

Deaths of many protesters lined the streets surrounding the Square

But the CCP has learned from its mistakes.  No longer is its violence against dissent as public as it was the morning of June 4, 1989.  And no longer does the CCP come off as a lawless regime.  Instead, its cloaks its crackdowns with a veneer of legality.  Since April 2014, in preparation for the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, the Chinese government has detained – either criminally or through unofficial house arrest – over 84 individuals.  But these individuals are not detained under the guise of being counter revolutionaries like the students of the 1989 movement.  That would be too obvious.  Instead, the Chinese government has slapped the vague and overly broad crime of  “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.”  After 20 years of Western rule of law programs, the CCP has come to realize that the easiest way to deflect global criticism is to follow legal procedure, no matter how abusive, vague or entrapping that legal procedure might be.

If the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen means anything, China’s new strategy – the use of law to suppress dissent – must be

Everyday rickshaw drivers tried to save many of the students

Everyday rickshaw drivers tried to save many of the students

examined and criticized.  China’s activists are being violently detained and imprisoned in record numbers “in accordance with the law.”  But that suppression of dissent is no different than what happened in 1989.  It is another method of killing the chicken to scare the monkeys – ensuring that the violence against a few “troublemakers” teaches the rest of society not to rock the boat.  This time though the rest of the world is increasingly complacent.

As the world marks the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on Wednesday, China will be the lone nation that will not.  Since 1989, its people have been forbidden to commemorate the event; they are not permitted to remember; they are not allowed to note those fateful days that changed their lives more than anything in China’s recent past.  And that is why the events that other nations hold in honor of the many brave Chinese people who lost their lives on that night are so important.  Because while the Chinese government has found new strategies to more effectively deal with international criticism of its treatment of its people, the one thing that the outside world still has is the truth.  But that truth must not be limited to just what happened 25 years ago; it must also be used to call on China today stop its suppression of dissent today.  To do otherwise is a disservice the victims of that night.

One of the most iconic photos of the 20th Century - one man stands up to a line of tanks

One of the most iconic photos of the 2oth Century – one man stands up to a line of tanks

How to Remember a Past

Spring 1989 - Peaceful Protest on Tiananmen SquareTwenty-five years is a silver anniversary; fifty a golden and seventy-five, a diamond jubilee.  But 24 years?  There is nothing in particular to mark a 24th anniversary – no special color, no special symbol, little attention in the press.

On Tuesday, the world will mark this nondescript 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.  The 20 year old idealistic college students who called for greater equality and believed in their government back in 1989, those kids will turn 44.  The parents who had to bring home a dead son or daughter, they will have to face another lonely anniversary of remembering.

But their remembrance will be in silence.  The Chinese government does not mark the passing of its violent crackdown on thousands of unarmed, college students on the night of June 3, 1989 and doesn’t allow its state-controlled press or its people to do so either.  The American author William Faulkner once wrote “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  But in China, that’s just not true of the Tiananmen Square massacre.  Since 1989, the Chinese government has effectively expunged the events of that night from society’s collective memory, especially among the young.  Today, it is not uncommon to find college students – students the same age as those killed in 1989 – who know little or nothing of the event, who have never heard of the “Goddess of Democracy,” and have no clue about the bravery of their countrymen in attempting to form a more perfect country.

Unfortunately, the Tiananmen Square massacre is not the only part of China’s past that has been forgotten.  Take the Cultural Revolution.  From

Some of the dead discovered on June 4, 1989

1966 to 1976, China, at the behest of Mao Zedong, descended into chaos.  Various factions of high school and college age Red Guards were in charge, parents, teachers and intellectuals were publicly ridiculed, some tortured and the unfortunate ones killed.

Today’s youth do know about the Cultural Revolution but only the white-washed version.  Walk into any hip shop on the cute street of Nanluoguxiang in Beijing and it will be filled with kitsch Cultural Revolution memorabilia.  Red Guard hats and armbands, t-shirts with puns of popular Cultural Revolution slogans on them, Mao wristwatches.  All of these are bought with gusto by Beijing’s youth.  But while certain aspects of the Cultural Revolution are allowed to be discussed, the seamier parts – the hundreds to thousands of people killed (either by their own hand or by overzealous Red Guards) and a generation of dreams shattered because of insane policies of the government – are largely unknown to the young.

Every society and every culture has parts of its past it would prefer not to remember.  The United States, with its sordid treatment of various ethnic groups throughout its history, is no stranger to forgetfulness.  The 1862 mass execution of 38 Dakota Indian men for war crimes is known by very few.  In fact the specifics of our treatment of Native Americans is rarely taught in school.  It’s not uncommon for a high school lessons on the United States’ treatment of Native Americans to – sadly – be concluded with a showing of Dances with Wolves.

Tank Man – A man, celebrated throughout the rest of the world but not in China.

Although historical forgetfulness is never good, there is a difference between a people deciding to forget their past and a government that gives their people no choice.  A people should be allowed to acknowledge those actions it deems significant to its culture.  For the United States, many of the marches, protests, and bravery of ordinary Americans during the civil rights movement have come to be celebrated, even those events that at the time that seemed pernicious.

But for China, the people have not been given that opportunity.  The Chinese people have not been allowed to celebrate their fellow countrymen and women who, during one spring season believed in a better country and who in one night lost their lives at the hands of their own government.

Tiananmen 23 Years Later: An Unknown History?

For the great majority of young mainland Chinese, the events of the Tiananmen Massacre have never entered their consciousness; they have never seen the photographs and news reports about it, and even fewer have their family or teachers ever explained it to them. They have not forgotten it; they have never known anything about it.”

So ends Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years, an allegorical novel set in the near-future Beijing, where China is the only prosperous nation left after the great global economic meltdown of 2008. Most of its citizens are happy – unnaturally so – and fully satisfied with the materialism of their new lives.

But there is a small group of misfits- led by Fang Caodi – that is searching for a missing month from 2008 where martial law was imposed so that the government could bring on the fat years. All remnants of that month have been erased from society’s collective memory: newspapers published during that month no longer exist and no one ever speaks of it. It’s as if it never occurred. Fang and his posse go all over the country, trying to find any evidence of that missing month and trying to find more people like them: people who remember. They find almost no one but then hatch a plan to kidnap a high level government official and interrogate him. They find out about a government intent on guaranteeing that the mistakes of its pass are forgotten and only China’s glorious future is remembered.

Make no mistake, Chan is not talking about a missing month in 2008. What Chan is discussing are the seven weeks that led up to the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen massacre, where martial law was imposed, high-level Chinese officials ordered the army to open fire on its own people, and hundreds of unarmed student protestors were estimated to have been killed.

On Monday the world will mark the 23rd anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. But Mainland China will not. Every year, the anniversary of Tiananmen, known as Liu Si in Chinese, is forgotten on mainland China, unless you count the Chinese government’s stepped up security of Tiananmen Square and random detention of activists as a commemorating event.

Around June 1, 1989, over a million students converge on Beijing's Tiananmen Square

For 23 years, there has been no public mention of the Tiananmen massacre and aside from hushed whispers among older Chinese, in particular the Tiananmen Mothers who bravely try to keep the murder of their children alive, there is little private discussion of the event. The Chinese government’s 23 years of silence concerning Tiananmen isn’t just denial. It’s been a concerted and fairly effective effort to erase Tiananmen, and the government’s bloody actions on the night of June 3, 1989, from China’s collective memory.

Mainland Chinese born after 1989 largely do not know anything about the events surrounding those seven weeks 23 years ago nor the bloody repression on the night of June 3 into the early morning hours of June 4. To the extent that they have heard anything about it – from a professor who might have supported the students in 1989 or from a family member who was there – their recollections are muddied at best.

Chan’s The Fat Years is a warning: that the Chinese must not forget the past; that they must continue to remember. But that warning is mixed with the reality that perhaps some Chinese do want to forget, especially the young. Compared to 1989, times have never been better. Why rock the boat? Why be bothered with your parent’s history?  And that is Chan’s second note of caution to the Chinese: do not be lulled into acceptance by materialism.

But those messages will not be heard in China.  In keeping with their efforts to annihilate Tiananmen from collective memory,the Chinese government has banned The Fat Years. In the introduction to the English translation, Julia Lovell notes that the book has still

A rickshaw driver ferries two dying students on he morning of June 4, 1989

made its way around dissident circles in Beijing. But dissidents in Beijing are a small, insular group; the vast majority of Chinese will remain unaware.  The fact that today’s dissidents and rights activists still remember Tiananmen is one weakness in the Chinese government’s goal and might explain the two-year crackdown on activists.

For the first few years after the Tiananmen massacre, the question was, how long will the Chinese government refuse to investigate the murder of hundreds of Chinese students. Twenty-three years later, now the question is, will the Chinese ever know their own history? As time passes, memories fade, Tiananmen mothers die, and the Chinese Communist Party remains in power, the answer seems to be leaning toward no.

That is why we must never forget June 4, 1989 and continue to memorialize and investigate the events. As censorship increases in China, the western world is ironically becoming the repository of China’s modern history. Eventually, the Chinese people will demand that they be allowed to learn their own history; eventually they will be free to decide for their own what aspects of their history that they want to commemorate and what they want to forget.  Eventually, the West’s repository of knowledge will be accessed by the Chinese.

Chan’s The Fat Years should not be read for its literary style. At many points the narrative really slows down and “near future Beijing” is actually 2013, making it difficult for the current English reader of translation to find it even slightly believable. It also appears to peter out toward the end with the main characters just fading from the page. But for the ideas that the book presents about modern day China and its potential future, it is an important read.  Especially today, on this anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Fat Years: A Novel, by Chan Koonchung (Nan A. Talese, 2012), 336 pages.

A BBC news report from the early morning of June 4, 1989

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