6/4: We have not forgotten
June 3, 2009 11:34 PM   Subscribe

On the square, it was a total carnival. It was around 11pm, a beautiful, warm Beijing evening. Student groups surged up and down in front of the Tiananmen Gate with banners and chants. Jim took copious notes as I translated for him. A squad of students passed us by with a banner that declared themselves to be the "Dare to Die Brigade". Everyone was animated and alive. In the midst of the madness, there was a sense of safety.
Memoirs of Tiananmen Square by former Reuters Asia editor Graham Earnshaw. Pictures from the 1989 protests. Charlie Rose 1996 interview with 1989 US Ambassador in China James Lilley and student protest leader Chai Ling about documentary Gate of Heavenly Peace (excerpts) which criticized student leaders. Virtual Museum of China '89 (graphic images within). Declassified US government documents dealing with the events of 20 years ago and the aftermath. Recently the memoirs of 1989 Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang were published and he blames Li Peng, Deng Xiaoping and hardliners for the massacre. Finally, here's Cui Jian's 一无所有 (Nothing to My Name), the rock song that became the anthem of Tiananmen Square protesters. 六四: 我们 沒 忘 了
posted by Kattullus (37 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
posted by wuwei at 11:36 PM on June 3, 2009

Okay, now that I've read that Graham Earnshaw piece, this jumps out at me, a quote from an older gentleman of Earnshaw's acquaintance:
"I think this is as great in world history as something like the French Revolution, maybe even greater. China occupies a very large area of the world and the political consciousness of the people of China matters a lot for the cause of democracy throughout the world."
Today this strikes me as utterly naive. I think what the old man did not realize, was that in the west the powers that be had already learned how to co-opt democracy to get what they wanted. They learned to do that through the mass consumer society. The Chinese leadership took one look at that and realized they could build a mass consumer society themselves, with more restrictions, and that it would be a powerful tool to hold the intellectuals and the middle class in place. I am sad that, post-Tiananmen, we haven't been able to find a way out of this problem, the problem of a bought-off civil society.

In light of the financial crisis, it seems that our much trumpeted western democratic system is not doing so well. We have well over 50 percent of Americans wanting a government backed healthcare system, and yet single payer isn't on the table. The financiers who perpetrated the economic crisis have yet again profited in the crisis, looting governments for funds by convincing them to buy worthless crap ''assets" and continuing to charge ridiculously high credit card interest rates.

And, in the west, those of us who hoped that somehow more economic integration would spur China towards freedom and democracy, have seen those hopes dashed as well. The Chinese government has learned very well how to buy off people overseas-- make sure that businesses come, and understand that the price of making money is to STFU and not make waves about land grabs, environmental destruction, terrifically bad factory conditions and forced abortions. That STFU of course, also applies to the overseas Chinese who profit from their connection to the mainland, as well as the individuals who work in academia. Complaining about the mainland government is a quick way to be banned from the country, which of course makes it difficult to conduct academic research. That can stifle a career pretty strongly-- not everyone can be Orville Schell.

Thanks for posting this, it's important that people keep the memory alive. I couldn't even make it through all of the first link. Even 20 years later, it's just too painful. China's failure, is our failure too.
posted by wuwei at 11:55 PM on June 3, 2009 [4 favorites]

wuwei: Even 20 years later, it's just too painful.

Yeah... it's been weighing on my mind for a couple of days. I have been somewhat obsessively reading about it all day. It's one of the first world events I can remember watching on television.
posted by Kattullus at 12:06 AM on June 4, 2009

And if anyone here is in Hong Kong today maybe you'd like to attend the vigil in Victoria Park. Some added poignancy this year - Donald Tsang's remarks (he's the CEO of Hong Kong) have reminded Hong Kongers just what kind of horrible accommodation some of HK's leaders have made to keep onside with the mainland government.
posted by awfurby at 1:17 AM on June 4, 2009

Also: What I saw at Tiananmen by Claudia Rosett.
posted by awfurby at 1:19 AM on June 4, 2009

I'm living in a small town in China and feel a little sad that (somewhat unsurprising) I haven't heard anyone say anything about this anniversary at all. On the other hand, I'm happy to report that I was able to follow about half of these links! Take that, great firewall!
posted by mustard seeds at 1:21 AM on June 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

Reading from a cafe near Tian'anmen Square now. Nothing obviously out of the ordinary going on on the Square, though it'd probably be a lousy idea to take out a camera. Lots of fairly obvious plainclothes policemen, and in the areas around here there's an usual number of paired PAP vans patrolling slowly.

So, like June 4 every year, pretty much.
posted by bokane at 2:51 AM on June 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, I don't know if it's fair to say simply that 'The Gate of Heavenly Peace' "criticized student leaders." It presented about as neutral and fair an evaluation of things as is possible, I think, and it's no surprise that once the rose-tinted glasses were removed, some of the student protesters ended up looking less than saintly. Particularly Chai Ling, who said in an interview during the demonstrations that she was "hoping" for bloodshed, and recently brought a frivolous lawsuit against the filmmakers.
posted by bokane at 3:00 AM on June 4, 2009

I mentioned the criticism of student leaders because that's what Chai Ling is replying to. On the specific charge of having said that she was "hoping for bloodshed" she said that the filmmakers had translated a word that meant either 'hope for' or 'expect' as 'hope for' but that she had meant she was 'expexcting bloodshed.'
posted by Kattullus at 5:05 AM on June 4, 2009

This comment by James Kynge at the FT chimes with my own experience talking to frineds who participated in the demonstrations:
When I think about the massacre in central Beijing that followed weeks of demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989, which I covered as part of a team of Reuters reporters, I cannot help feeling troubled.

Of course it was a brutal and harrowing time, but that isn’t the reason for my disquiet. I’m concerned because I don’t think we – the western media – got the narrative of those days quite right.


I do question, however, the western media’s basic assertion that the demonstrations had been “pro-democracy”. Even now, a raft of editorials commemorating the event’s 20th anniversary repeat the mantra that the students were “demanding democracy”.

The reality was less coherent, as shown in Beijing Coma, a recent novel by Ma Jian, a Chinese writer who experienced the demonstrations first hand. By interweaving individual motives and broad themes, Ma shows that the movement never adhered to tidy definitions. It was, above all, the unburdening of the hopes of a generation easing itself free of the strictures left from Chairman Mao’s rule.

Almost everything fell within its scope: campaigns against corruption, nepotism, inflation, police brutality, bureaucracy, official privilege, media censorship, human rights abuses, cramped student dormitories and the smothering of democratic urges. But to say the demonstrations were to “demand democracy” is an oversimplification.

The truth is that the students in the square had only the haziest understanding of western-style democracy. To the extent that the protests were directed at abuses of an existing system by an emerging elite, they were motivated more by outrage at the betrayal of socialist ideals than by aspirations for a new system. The mood in the square was at least as much conservative as it was activist.

Such arguments may seem arcane two decades later. But, in my view, they are keenly relevant. The styling of Tiananmen as a pro-democracy movement helped to miscast the west’s narrative on China’s past and future.
posted by Abiezer at 5:10 AM on June 4, 2009 [7 favorites]

Danwei has a good post on how a number of Chinese websites are "closed for maintenance" for the duration - a commenter there linked their own which has this "error" message:
"For reasons everyone is aware of, in order to control my own extremely unharmonious thoughts, this website will voluntarily [highlighted in red] be undergoing technical maintenance between June 3 and June 6; we ask your forgiveness for any inconvenience this may create."
posted by Abiezer at 5:20 AM on June 4, 2009

@Katullus - The word she used, 期待, can only mean "to look forward to" or "to hope for" -- it cannot, whatever she says, mean "to expect" in any sense other than "to expect eagerly." The exchange between Barme and Hinton, makers of the documentary, and Ian Buruma in the NYRB a while back focused on this, among other points.
posted by bokane at 5:28 AM on June 4, 2009

Thanks, bokane, for clearing that up. The clip where she says that is very strange to me, as if she's crying, which made the word "hope" seem odd even before I watched her interview.
posted by Kattullus at 5:31 AM on June 4, 2009

Philip Cunningham, who did the interview with Chai Ling, has been posting excerpts from a new book on the events of 1989. Chai Ling and a number of other student leaders come across as alternating between "lay down our lives" bravado and sheer terror, which makes the use of "hope for" more understandable. And besides, this was a completely off-the-cuff intereview, not an official pronouncement, so I'm not sure how much the motives of the movement should be pinned on that one word.

Cunningham also posted a well-reasoned editorial on the question of who bears responsibility for the killings, pointing out that the debate over students' motives and actions, and the focus on particular personalities, is possible because they've been forthcoming with information, while we have nothing at all from the government that ultimately made the decision to start firing.
posted by zhwj at 5:49 AM on June 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

That's excellent comment from Cunningham, zhwj. Thanks.
posted by Abiezer at 5:54 AM on June 4, 2009

Great link Abiezer, people I have spoken with about it seem to have similar sentiment. More a lament of the loss of the iron ricebowl and the growing graft (which have both continued to slide down the slippery slope at an ever faster rate for the last 20 years). I perhaps had not realized the extent to which the elites in the square were on the same page with the masses in the boonies.

To that end the Tiananmen revolution is still in the making, precisely because of the continued slide away from their demands. The Party has given more and more freedoms, particularly freedom of consumer consumption, but it really hasn't addressed the main causes that started the protests in the first place. They have been in lieu of ending corruption and less to quell calls for democratization. It's like the Roman Emperors holding more and more spectacular games in the colloseum to calm riots rather than simply feeding the people. I think it never really dawned on me that the protests in 1976, in 1989, and the ones going on in the rural areas today are largely cut from the same cloth and not seperate movements of seperate peoples.

The people seem to be calling for the People's Republic to live up to its name and the Party responds by privatizing the banking industry and allowing freer movement of capital, but they don't stop taking people's lands or tearing down the danwei they were born in or looking the other way while the mayor and his cronies steal billions from a public-private real estate investment trust and leave hundreds of thousands of people out in the cold. Sure, they love their occasional high-profile exposes of a corruption scandals in the People's Daily, but why is it that only one guy ever commits suicide or goes to jail when billions of dollars go missing?
posted by Pollomacho at 5:56 AM on June 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

I've never been to China, and I'll be the first to recognise that my understanding of Chinese culture and politics is limited, to say the least. But one thing that strikes me as somewhat unreported by Western media is that the Chinese leaders of the time, starting with Deng Xiaoping, had extremely traumatic experiences of the Cultural Revolution. They had good reason to be jumpy about "student demonstrators" and were possibly completely unable to discriminate between peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators and violent mobs ready to humiliate, torture and kill any authority figure (never mind that there's a whole spectrum of protester types between those two poles).

I don't wish to excuse the crackdown: it was evil, violent and ruthless. The Chinese authorities' continued touchiness about the subject is enough to prove that their consciences are far from clean. But it is also a lot more difficult to understand without considering just what had happened in China just one generation earlier.
posted by Skeptic at 5:57 AM on June 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

To the extent that the protests were directed at abuses of an existing system by an emerging elite, they were motivated more by outrage at the betrayal of socialist ideals than by aspirations for a new system. The mood in the square was at least as much conservative as it was activist.

This is true of many revolutions. Substitute "the rights of Englishmen" for "socialist ideals" and this paragraph is equally descriptive of the mood of many colonists just before the American Revolution.
posted by octobersurprise at 5:58 AM on June 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

The editorial by Philip Cunningham that zhwj linked to is indeed great. I wish I had found it yesterday and put it in the post. Here is an excerpt:
By making available to the media, with Chai Ling's express permission in writing, the May 28, 1989 interview, I inadvertently contributed to a media process that put far too much focus on a vivid personality with very little actual power, though she was the titular leader of the students at the time and thus in the mind's eye in charge of tens of thousands of followers.

The charged rhetoric she has subsequently been vilified for was not unique to her; one could hear it in the whispers and shouts of marchers; one could see ink-brush portents of it in poems scribbled on university walls that spoke of "blood flowing down Chang'an Boulevard" a full month before the massacre.

Talk of bodily, if not bloody sacrifice, along with the melodramatic last wills and testaments of the sort that Chai Ling handed me on May 28 were part and parcel of a mass hunger strike, an uncannily effective crowd precipitant that caused the square to swell with well-wishers beyond expectation.

Yet despite crowds a million strong and an abundance of over-the-top rhetoric, the hunger strike ended quietly without a single casualty.

For 20 years the official voice of China, and to a surprising extent, many of its foreign interlocutors, has found it expedient to sweep the basic facts of the crackdown under the carpet, by quibbling about details, cooking up various arguments about the overarching need for stability, or by giving it the silent treatment, in counterpoint to readily available lurid descriptions of what rascals and opportunists the student activists were.

To blame it on the students, as many young people in China do today, is to fall for a propaganda line, to take one's eye off the ball.
I have some problems with the op-ed by James Kynge that Abiezer posted. While it is important acknowledge the complexity of what happened 20 years ago I feel that his argument that the West is culpable in some way for the propaganda that the Chinese authorities have employed to define the story of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest is strange (I may be misreading him here). Propagandists are capable of constructing all kinds of narratives, what the West does or did has very little to do with the efficacy of the Communist Party's propaganda within China.
posted by Kattullus at 8:13 AM on June 4, 2009

China’s New Rebels
posted by homunculus at 8:46 AM on June 4, 2009

I have some problems with the op-ed by James Kynge that Abiezer posted. While it is important acknowledge the complexity of what happened 20 years ago I feel that his argument that the West is culpable in some way for the propaganda that the Chinese authorities have employed to define the story of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest is strange (I may be misreading him here).
I read him as saying not so much that West is responsible for the propaganda strategy but that it inadvertently feeds it, with especially the more cack-handed mischaracterisations giving legitimacy to a notion that human rights criticisms are made not from sincere universalist motives but used merely as a stick to bash China seen as a rising threat (recent editorial complaining of same) to Western hegemony.
posted by Abiezer at 9:13 AM on June 4, 2009

Thanks, Abiezer, that makes more sense, though I'm not sure even if the West behaved perfectly (which it hasn't and can't) that the situation would be any different.

An account of the massacre in the Muxidi neighborhood of Beijing where citizens tried to stop the army from entering the city. This is from The Tiananmen Papers, the provenance of which is disputed but their account was bolstered by Zhao Ziyang's autobiography.
posted by Kattullus at 9:57 AM on June 4, 2009

The heroic mums and dads of Beijing by John Gittings. Excerpt:
Arriving at night in Beijing after martial law had been declared, I found the road from the airport barred by citizens' checkpoints, staffed by local residents – their purpose to stop the army moving in to the city centre.

"We'll never let them in," they told me, "only the old people and the children are asleep. The rest of us are in the streets." They were the shimin – the working-class citizens of Beijing who had been brought up to believe that "the army and the people should be united", so they were rallying now to prevent the army from attacking the people.
posted by Kattullus at 10:29 AM on June 4, 2009

Farcical video from CNN of Chinese plainclothes security officials blocking filming by using umbrellas. Also reports on the internet and media clampdown within China.
posted by Kattullus at 11:03 AM on June 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

"Nicholas D. Kristof, an Op-Ed columnist who was Beijing bureau chief for The Times in the spring of 1989, recalls the city's mood during the student protests leading up to June 4, 1989."
posted by Kattullus at 11:54 AM on June 4, 2009

After the Times blog entry about the 4 vantage points (as pointed out by Kattallus), another photographer digs up a unique angle of the tank man: from street-level.
posted by myopicman at 12:11 PM on June 4, 2009

Jonathan Golob at Slog has posted some stuff i haven't seen before (and by stuff, I mean pics of tanks burning and what may be the red smear of people who have been crushed by tanks):

posted by mwhybark at 1:07 PM on June 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

More images of Tiananmen Square 20 years ago by Flickr user 6489.
posted by Kattullus at 1:11 PM on June 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Interestingly a commenter to the post mwhybark links to says that people in China can access Twitter, Facebook et al. The CNN video I linked to showed a reporter trying and failing to access twitter.com. Anyone here in China? Is the web clampdown exaggerated or is the aforementioned commenter misinformed?
posted by Kattullus at 1:35 PM on June 4, 2009

In summer of 1988 I was in college and had been taking some summer courses. In one class I was taking, a drawing class, a fellow student and I were the most accomplished draftsmen in the class. Interested in each other's work and one another, we struck up a casual friendship. He was from Beijing and he and his wife were enrolled in grad school at Indiana University.

He had graduated from a Chinese art school and repeatedly expressed frustration with his mastery of beaux-arts style draftsmanship - his work was astonishingly precise and controlled, and it was this reined-in quailty that frustrated him about his own work. My bold slashing charcoal marks seemed liberated to him, just as his polished work appealed to me as beyond my own skills at the time.

As the protests gathered momentum in China, he became increasingly involved in the overseas support network, and we had many exciting discussions about what was happening in Beijing and what it meant within Chinese history and culture. He was quite certain that the protests were a watershed for the country, and based this partially on the numerous other turning pionts in Chinese history that had been catalyzed by student protests. The details escape me now, alas.

My parents and my younger sister had lived in Shanghai together and separately for a total of about two and a half years over the preceding four, while I remained in the states in (and out) of college. I was somewhat regretful that I had been too busy with my ealy-twenties concerns to go visit, a regret that has intensified over the years. I was a fool not to go.

As the news of gathering Army units passed into the square, the information (and attendant rumors) were transmitted back through the support network and in turn to me, when I would see my friend in class. It was electrifying to hear him recount the latest news and rumors and then to hear or see news coverage on CNN and NPR that would essentially confirm the information my friend was recounting.

As the end of May approached, his news became ever more daunting, ever more promising, ever more frightening. Factory workers had gone on strike all over the country. Beijing's public transportation workers were joining the strike. It was a general strick that was affecting the entire country. Miners from a rural province were advancing on Beijing, determined to oust the students by force. There were tank brigades in the streets of Beijing. Entire batallions of the military had gone over to the students. There was a rift in governing council of the state. Civil war was imminent. The governing council had acceded rto the student's demands. Party newspapers were covering the protests accurately and openly. People were being kidnapped form the Square under cover of darkness. There was a 'good army' and a 'bad army' and there would be street warfare in Beijing. A thousand rumors, all shades of truth and fear and wishes.

At some point an important government official appeared in the square and was said to have tearfully begged the protestors' forgiveness before leaving. My friend took this as a bad sign, and he told me that civil war was the only likely outcome. He told me bluntly that China was on the verge of returning to the era of the warlords in the 1920s and 30s. We parted on a somber note. It was June 2 or 3.

On my way home, I realized that my parents had mailed me an itinerary for a long international trip, as they did with numbing regularity (and still do, I must admit). The information was overwhelming in each one of these documents, and so I rarely examined them closely, noting only with great vagueness their departure and return dates, and almost never the destinations the trips involved.

On arriving at my house, I found the note and opened it to see the, um, concerning words:

"Shanghai, Shanghai Institute for Mechanical Engineering, International Business Association Conference, June 5-8, 1988. Travel dates June 2-4, arriving in Shanghai on June 4."

(Please note the actual name of the conference and specific dates are fudged. Travel dates are correct, I think).

I do not recall if this was on June 3 or June 4. The dateline complicated things quite a bit.

I called my folks' house. The phone rang and rang. They had already left. Looking over the itinerary, they had a serious haul to get in to Shanghai. I estimated that the travel day they had slated amounted to about 24 hours of solid travel, including layovers. I began trying to leave messages for them, hoping they would get one and call me back so i could review the news about the protests with them. I ended up leaving messages with every travel organization and airline and at each desk of each airline that they might pass by on the way to China. My best hope was in Hong Kong, where the airline personnell were as aware of and concerned about the latest developments as I.

In the end, unfortunately, my parents received none of the messages.

The next day, I began to call every number I had access to from my parents and my sister's time in China. As I was doing this, I turned on CNN and saw that the Army had begun the advance into the square. Most of the people I reached did not speak English well enough to be of assistance. However, a native Chinese speaker picked up the phone in what had been my sister's dorm and went to find another American who was living in the dorm. She did not know my sister, but she did speak Chinese, and of course was full of questions about what was happening in Beijing, as the Chinese media had gone dark.

I tried to describe what I was seeing on the TV, but of course could not (my recollection is telephoto night shots of the square, fires burning here and there). I ended up simply hanging the phone in front of the broadcast for about a half hour, until the newsreaders cycled back to the top of their headline list. The news was pretty thin, mostly US media noting that the Army was clearing the square, that events were underway, and the scale of the casulaties was not known - more or less what we still know today.

I got off the phone and had a few moments of looking into an abyss - my friend had told me he expected the state to disintegrate. Although it is only tangential to this narrative, my frame of mind will be better illuminated if I note that my sister, who had been in Chine with my parents, had been killed in an auto-bicycle accident the preceding fall. Losing my parents to history was something that I was not prepared to accept. If things went they way my friend had predicted, I would have to go to China to find them, and I would have to do it very soon.

In the end, I am happy to report, they called me from Shanghai. They had no inkling of what was happening for the duration of the trip. The first they learned of things was only very obliquelly, when my father's colleague, a fellow professor at SIME, met them at the airport with a couple of grad students in tow. Things were vary bad, he told them, but would not elaborate. Public transportation workers in Shanghai were on strike, it turned out, and the only way to my father's colleague's home, where he insisted my parents stay, was to walk in to Shanghai from the airport - a distance, my parents told me, of about 20 miles. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of that estimate. I am certain that it felt like twenty miles after that punishing flight schedule.

They called me on arriving in town and after some sleep. I begged them to turn around and leave immediately, which they declined to do, as my father and his colleague were the co-chairs and primary sponsors for the conference. They determined to cancel the event and tried to contact the attendees, with varying success. As it happened, nearly no-one showed up, as one might expect. My parents remained in Shanghai as scheduled and departed as initially planned (as I recall).

My father's colleague was actively disinterested in hearing the news I had passed on to my father on the phone - he had been through the Cultural Revolution and feared a rerun.

My father maintains strong professional ties to Chinese colleagues and travels to China frequently. I still haven't ever been.
posted by mwhybark at 2:01 PM on June 4, 2009 [6 favorites]

huh, I thought I had blogged this story before but this appears to be the first time I have ever written it out.
posted by mwhybark at 2:17 PM on June 4, 2009

...and on my commute home, I realized that of course I meant 1989. D'oh.
posted by mwhybark at 4:29 PM on June 4, 2009

Interestingly a commenter to the post mwhybark links to says that people in China can access Twitter, Facebook et al. The CNN video I linked to showed a reporter trying and failing to access twitter.com. Anyone here in China? Is the web clampdown exaggerated or is the aforementioned commenter misinformed?

I'm not having any luck with Twitter right now, but I don't really understand the workings of the firewall. Sometimes it seems like almost nothing is accessible (Facebook, metafilter, blogger, etc.) but then suddenly they all come back.
posted by mustard seeds at 7:24 PM on June 4, 2009

I assume you are en Chine at the moment, mustard seeds?

I apologize for the typos above, I was composing in the comment box. I should add that after writing all that I REALLY wanted to talk to my folks... but they were on a trip. Happily for me they called (having just arrived home) as I was set to serve dinner, and we talked the plates cold.
posted by mwhybark at 10:50 PM on June 4, 2009

The images of Tiananmen Square 20 years ago by Flickr user 6489 that kattalus linked have been removed/hidden today. There were some very interesting images there, and one even said that it showed "humans remains run over by tanks" (sure looked like it).
posted by dabitch at 3:28 AM on June 5, 2009

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