Posts tagged: massacre

Wang Nan’s Tian’anmen 26 Years Later

An early photo of Wang Nan, late 1980s

Wang Nan (pronounced Wong Nan) is a 45 year old Beijinger.  Born in 1970, he has seen his city radically change under China’s economic miracle.  In fact, as a photojournalist, he has documented China’s unfathomable rise and has been fortunate enough to partake in it.  Wang Nan and his wife live more than comfortably in their renovated, Western-style apartment, where his photos from around the world line the walls.  He knows he has been lucky, and he will tell you that immediately when you meet him; even with his world travels, he is still a fairly humble man.  His 11-year-old daughter worships him even when he sings off key on their Sunday morning car rides to visit his mother.  His 78-year-old mother, like all mothers, criticizes him as soon as he arrives – his hair is too long, he’s too skinny, he spoils his daughter – her granddaughter – too much.  But like all mothers, she is proud of her son.  And Sunday is her favorite day of the week.

But Wang Nan is not 45 years old.  He has not shared in China’s economic miracle.  He does not have a daughter.  And he never sees his mother.   For Wang Nan never made it past the age of 19.   Instead, in the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, on the corner of Nancheng Street and Chang’an Boulevard – the Boulevard of Eternal Peace – a People’s Liberation Army’s bullet ripped through this high school student’s head.

As Louisa Lim recounts in her powerful book The People’s Republic of Amnesia, Wang Nan’s heart was still faintly

June 4, 1989, the aftermath of the Tian’anmen Crackdown

beating when doctors found him unconscious, bleeding from the head.  They wanted to take him to the hospital, but the soldiers forbade it.  Frantically, the doctors used their last bandage to cover his wound and stayed with him until he died two hours later.  With the sun rising on that June 4 morning 26 years ago and desperate to hide the bodies, the soldiers dug a shallow grave in the lawn of the nearby school and dumped Wang Nan’s body  there along with two other civilians.  There it would lie until a few days later, when the stench was overwhelming  and the dirt was beginning to wash away, the health department came to collect the bodies.

Wang Nan’s mother, Zhang Xianling (pronounced Zhang See-ann Ling), one of the founders of the Tian’anmen Mothers, has never been allowed to visit the spot where her son took his last breath.  Every June 4, she is held under house arrest, with police standing guard at her apartment door, refusing to let her leave or for anyone else to come in.  In a symbol of tormented anguish, she will communicate with the outside world on the anniversary of her son’s death by holding a photo of him out of her apartment window.

Zhang Xianling with a picture of her son, Wang Nan, killed on June 4, 1989

Twenty-six years later, as Lim poignantly recounts in her book, it is this impediment to remembrance and the Chinese Communist Party’s (“CCP”) complete control of the history surrounding June 4th that is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all.  And as Lim points out, it is not just the parents who lost children that are not permitted to remember.  Bao Tong (pronounced Bow (rhymes with pow) Tongue), director of China’s Office of Political Reform in 1989 and right-hand man to his mentor Zhao Ziyang, believed that Deng’s economic reform must be coupled with political reform, otherwise corruption would prevail.  After the Tian’anmen crackdown, it was those thoughts that were blamed for the student protests and resulted in a seven year prison sentence for Bao.  In 2005, when Zhao Ziyang passed away, the police, which constantly stand guard at his apartment, refused to let Bao attend the funeral.  When his elderly wife attempted to go, the police pushed her to the ground, causing her to break a bone.

It is this recounting of the people’s history and the ghosts that still haunt them, that makes The People’s Republic of Amnesia one of the most important and moving books about the Tian’anmen crackdown.  Lim also does an excellent and unbiased job of describing the precise events that lead up to the crackdown making the book a must read for anyone who wants to understand China’s history and the current leadership’s obsession with “social stability” and complete control.

But Lim not only tells the stories of those who witnessed the crackdown, but also those for whom June 4, 1989 has no significance, namely the babies born after 1990.  In one study that Lim conducted, only 15 out of 100 Chinese college students were able to identify the infamous Tank Man photo, a photo that epitomizes the Tian’anmen crackdown and that is perhaps one of the world’s greatest symbols of courage.  She follows a college student who goes to Hong Kong to try to understand Tian’anmen, but when he returns to China, he just seems confused and deflated.  And then there is the Patriot, a Chinese car salesman who goes to Beijing to participate in the government-sponsored protests against the Japanese.  Their failure and inability to know about the Tian’anmen crackdown demonstrates the true effectiveness of the CCP’s re-writing of the Chinese people’s history.

Or does it?  Yes, there is a generation of Chinese who have not heard of the Tian’anmen massacre.  And then there are others who choose not to care.  But to assume that the CCP can so easily erase this dark moment in China’s history is to deny the Chinese people their conscience.  There is still a generation of Chinese – those born in the late 1960s and early 1970s – who know about Tian’anmen because they were alive when it happened.  When this generation comes to power and can change the history, will they?  Yes they might be busy making money now, but they have yet to ascend to leadership roles that would enable them to disclose the truth and recognize the bravery of those who died on June 4, 1989.

Tens of thousands march in Hong Kong last year to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the Tian’anmen Massacre

There are the 11 Chinese college students, currently studying in various universities in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, who wrote an open letter to the Chinese people to communicate what happened on June 4, 1989.  The government-controlled Global Times responded with an op-ed condemning these students.  Like the students of 1989, these students have chosen to jeopardize their futures in China in an attempt to get the CCP to acknowledge June 4.

And then there are those – like the doctors who tried to help Wang Nan as he laid dying or the medical intern who, knowing the danger, gave Zhang Xianling her son’s last effects, or the individual who took out an ad in 2007 in a Chengdu newspaper stating “Paying tribute to the strong(-willed) mothers of June 4 victims” – who, when confronted with the choice, will do what is morally right, not what is politically expedient.

For these people, the world must continue to remember June 4, 1989, so that when the Chinese people themselves can commemorate this anniversary on their own terms, the memory will still be there.

Rating: ★★★★★

The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited
By Louisa Lim
(Oxford University Press, 2014)
211 pages

 

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.

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