FW: remembering Tiananmen

From "Daniel F. Vukovich" <vukovich@hkucc.hku.hk>
Date Fri, 29 Jun 2007 17:21:55 +0800
Thread-index Ace5gzEp+e416ORUTPK7dDblNIfC9QAq1hbw

This might be of interest to those who haven't seen it, though not to say it
is a terribly deep meditation.... Wang Chaohua in LRB.  I would have thought
the fact that the young Chengdu editor had no idea what June 4 signified is
the most telling detail as to the legacy today.

Best, Dan

Subject: remembering Tiananmen

Source: London Review of Books 29.13 (2007):

By Chaohua Wang

Contrary to their intention, commemorations of historical events are more
often reminders of the power of forgetting: either official ceremonies that
gradually lose their meaning, becoming public holidays like any other, or
gatherings of tiny bands of militants or mourners, whose numbers dwindle to
nothing as the years pass. In Los Angeles, you can see both kinds. If you
ask people what Memorial Day stands for, virtually no one, not even
professors of history, can tell you. As for the other sort, I myself stand
every summer with a small band of friends outside the Chinese consulate in
downtown Los Angeles, holding placards scarcely anyone notices. But what we
commemorate has, unusually, not been forgotten elsewhere. It is now 18 years
since soldiers and tanks entered Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Yet every year
since then, on the night of 4 June, tens of thousands of people gather in
Hong Kong and, whatever the weather, light candles in memory of what
happened then, and those who died as a result of it. I don't think any other
mass commemoration has lasted so long. But what is remembered so powerfully
in Hong Kong cannot even be mentioned on the other side of the border that
separates the Special Administrative Region from the rest of the People's
Republic of China.

Eighteen years is not a short time; it's long enough for a baby to become an
adult. On 4 June this year, a strange incident occurred. In Chengdu, the
capital of the province of Sichuan, a city with a population of 11 million,
the small-ads pages of an evening newspaper contained a short item that
read: 'Salute to the steadfast mothers of the 4 June victims.' The entry was
noticed by some readers, scanned and uploaded onto the internet, where it
rapidly circulated. The authorities jumped to investigate. Within days,
three of the paper's editors had been fired. How had the wall of silence
been breached? The girl in charge of the small ads, born in the 1980s, had
called the number given by the person who placed the ad to ask what the date
referred to. Told it was a mining disaster, she cleared it. No one had ever
spoken to her about 1989. Censorship devours its own children.

The mothers the ad was honouring are a small group of elderly women who have
become the symbol of the event the country cannot refer to. Ding Zilin, who
organised the women, is now 71. She used to teach Marxist philosophy at the
People's University in Beijing. In 1989, when Tiananmen Square was occupied
by thousands of students, her 17-year-old son, who was still at school, got
caught up in the movement. On the evening of 3 June, as the atmosphere grew
increasingly tense, she feared the boy might join other demonstrators in the
streets and locked him in her apartment. He escaped through a bathroom
window, and was killed that night, when troops marched into the centre of
the city. No one knows how many died alongside him. Government repression
has been so complete that the number of victims remains a mystery. When Li
Hai, a former activist from Peking University, tried to collect information
about them in the early 1990s, he was sentenced to nine years' imprisonment
for 'leaking state secrets'. Despite constant police harassment and repeated
house arrests, Ding persisted in her inquiry, and in 1994 published, in Hong
Kong, a verifiable list of victims. Every year the list has expanded, and it
now has 186 names. More and more people who lost family members have
gathered around Ding. Inspired by the example of the Mothers of the
Disappeared in Argentina, and with help from human rights activists in Hong
Kong, Ding and her friends some time ago named themselves the Tiananmen
Mothers. Actually, the group also includes fathers, wives and husbands of
those who were killed, as well as some of those who were injured during the
repression. Qi Zhiyong, a worker, lost a leg from a bullet wound near
Tiananmen. For trying to get redress and compensation, he has repeatedly
been beaten by police thugs in his home; this year he was put under
precautionary arrest before 4 June, and only released when the anniversary
was over. His case is typical.

The government's fears are not irrational. Over six weeks, what began as a
student demonstration became a national political crisis, in which the
legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party's monopoly of power was seriously
challenged for the first time since the foundation of the People's Republic.
The government resolved the crisis by ordering regular troops, brought in
from the provinces, to enforce martial law in Beijing, even at the cost of
opening fire on the crowds and rolling tanks over peaceful protesters in
order to seize control of Tiananmen Square, the most powerful symbolic space
in modern China. For a whole week after the first gunshot, not a single
political leader came out to face the nation, leaving the capital in the
control of a professional army, a situation Beijing had not seen since the
Allied Expedition against the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.

With Deng Xiaoping's decision to crush the demonstrations the Party
recovered its monopoly of power, but not its legitimacy or its authority. To
fill the ideological void Deng set China on an accelerated path of economic
change, announced to the nation by a speech in the southern city of Shenzhen
in the spring of 1992, and expressed in the message 'to get rich is
glorious.' Plastered on billboards across the country, the Party's new
slogan dismissed any possibility of discussion of ideas or principles,
proclaiming simply: 'Development is the Irrefutable Argument.' Fifteen years
later, China is the industrial wonder of the world. The average standard of
living has improved, poverty has been reduced, urbanisation has exploded,
exports and financial reserves are sky-high. Abroad, admiration for the
People's Republic has never been higher. National prosperity and pride
typically go together. With such achievements to boast of, why should the
Communist Party still be so fearful of something that happened an epoch ago?
Why does it go to such lengths to distort and repress the past, and where it
is unable to erase people's memories entirely, why does it try to portray
the demonstrations of 1989 as senseless turmoil and the movement's activists
as conspiring tricksters? But the real question is this: what was the
conviction that led the protesters to stand up to the military machine?

Two opposing interpretations of the movement of 1989 have gained ground,
mainly in the West but also to some extent in China. The first is
socio-economic. In early 1988, the government pushed forcefully to free
prices, but the inflation that followed provoked such strong reactions
throughout the country that it was compelled to reinstitute food rationing
in the big cities in January 1989. Some American scholars have argued that
this was a factor in the massive social unrest that manifested itself in the
spring of 1989. In China itself, thinkers on the New Left have taken this
argument a step further, seeing the military crackdown of 4 June as
essentially paving the way for the marketisation of the economy, by breaking
resistance to the lifting of price controls (they were removed again, this
time successfully, in the early 1990s). According to this view, the driving
force behind the mass movement, even its inspiration, was the refusal of
reforms that would deprive the population of established standards of
collective welfare. What the gunshots in Beijing shattered were the last
hopes for the 'iron rice bowl' of socialism, clearing the way to a
fully-fledged capitalism in China.

Another school of thought turns this argument upside down. In this account,
the mass movement, far from clinging to the socialist past, looked boldly
ahead to a liberal future. The growing number of banners written in English,
and the styrofoam statue of a 'Goddess of Democracy', modelled partly on the
Statue of Liberty, erected on Tiananmen in the last days of May, all show
that America was the demonstrators' real dream: not the iron rice bowl, but
the market and the ballot box. Last month, George Bush presided over the
erection in Washington of a monument to the Victims of Communism, in the
form of a scaled-down bronze replica of the styrofoam goddess.

It is true that socio-economic discontent, especially following on the rapid
inflation of the summer of 1988, played an important role in generating
support for the student protests of the next year. But these economic
grievances were unambiguously transformed into political protests in the
movement of 1989. Their target was the way Deng Xiaoping and Zhao Ziyang,
then secretary-general of the Communist Party, ruled the country.
Particularly powerful in mobilising protest was Zhao's description of his
reforms as 'crossing a river by stepping one by one on stones under the
water'. If all you can do is test the stability of unseen stones on the
riverbed, what entitles you to a monopoly over policy-making? Why should we
wait while you pick your way through the current, now and then finding
yourself on the right stone, and letting us drown when you step on the wrong
one? That was more or less the feeling of the movement. The economic slogans
of 1989 were mostly attacks on past policies that had gone wrong, and
especially on corruption among high officials. But these never took the form
of specific economic demands, nor did any demands of that kind come into the
many attempts at 'dialogue' - i.e. negotiations - between protesters and
officials, before talks finally broke down. What dominated were
unequivocally political demands for freedom of speech, civil rights and
citizen participation.

As for the movement's ideology, one must remember that this huge social
upheaval erupted very quickly. When a hunger strike among the students put
pressure on the government in mid-May, the news media, including the
People's Daily, enjoyed a week of press freedom unprecedented in the history
of the PRC. On the streets people from the most varied social backgrounds
were suddenly able to voice their ideas and debate among themselves. In the
ensuing hubbub, it was easy to overinterpret a few isolated symbols. Popular
imaginings of America are an example. A highly abstract idea of the US,
based on very little knowledge, became one of the vehicles - a shell, if you
like - in which people's imaginative energy was invested. This shell was
filled, however, with understandings - and critical reflections - based on
life in the socialist, or semi-socialist, society of the previous decades.
Socialist discourse and notions of an idealised America were mixed together
in people's minds. This can be a disappointment for today's intellectuals,
who occupy much more clear-cut ideological positions, liberal or leftist.
Yet below the Goddess of Democracy, armbands on the picket line were red.
The historical significance of the upheaval of 1989 in Beijing does not lie
in one paradigm or another, espoused by this or that spokesman or leader. It
lies in the space the movement opened up for creative imagination and the
opportunities it offered for experiment. The focus was always on the right
of citizens to participate in the public life of the country, and the
channels that would enable them to do so.

However important economic developments or ideological cross-currents in the
making of the crisis, the incontestable fact is that the millions who
demonstrated in Beijing between April and June 1989 formed what was
essentially a political movement. What was its aim? On several occasions in
this past year, Party officials have, at last, publicly broached the topic
of democratic reform. It seems they think that time, and repeated lies, have
created enough of a barrier to stop people from relating the word
'democracy' to the protests in Tiananmen. However, I have always believed
that the courage of the demonstrators came from the power of a mass
movement's desire for democracy.

The movement was, of course, led by students, although by the end they made
up only a modest proportion of those who took part, and they have
consistently been singled out for criticism, not only by the government, but
by a number of intellectuals in China and abroad, who claim that had they
taken power, they would have exercised a more extreme dictatorship than the
Party itself. In reality, most of the students were troubled by the question
of the democratic legitimacy of their actions. They did go beyond inviting
public sympathy for their protests, but they never meant to overthrow the
government or to usurp its authority. Although they lacked practical
experience, owing to the vigilant ban on non-governmental organisations,
they benefited from the more open and reflective intellectual atmosphere of
the 1980s. Ideas of democratic reform had been widely spread by the
dissident physicist Fang Lizhi and others. The political principles of
autonomy and transparency were hot topics at the time.

Less than a week after the death of the reformist Communist Party leader Hu
Yaobang in mid-April 1989, those who gathered to mourn him began to form
independent organisations. On campus after campus, as soon as one individual
took the initiative, many students followed. That, in effect, is how the
Beijing Autonomous Association of College Students, the core organisation of
the 1989 protest, came into being. Every university had student
representatives who used their real names rather than sheltering in
anonymity - a great difference from the student movements that had emerged
since the late 1970s. I was among them.

With their college IDs as identification and their names out in the open,
the students had to take responsibility for what they were doing, and to
recognise their own positions of power as representatives of the student
body. Under tremendous political pressure, as well as pressure of time and
space, the student organisations encountered numerous obstacles in their
efforts to learn about and practise procedural democracy. Some students'
status was representative in name only, and would not withstand scrutiny.
Yet faced with the final decision whether or not to withdraw from Tiananmen
Square, the student leaders still relied on a vote to persuade their
followers, as well as themselves, of the rightness of their course of
action. The internal working of their organisations was always dependent on
democratic legitimation.

This is not to claim that every twist of events was democratically
determined. There were many imperfections in the students' exercise of
practices that were so new to them. Among today's intellectuals in China,
one sometimes hears a distinction being made between a republic and a
democracy. Adapting it, I would use the term 'republic' for the united will
that establishes a political collectivity in the first place, and
'democracy' for the procedures that govern it once unity is established.
Ideally, the two should be complementary, for without republican unity there
is no framework for democracy, and without democracy the original spirit of
a republic is never guaranteed. At one level, the students knew this. They
demanded democracy, but always assumed it would be realised in the context
of the People's Republic, and this was how they justified their confidence
in marching through the streets. But at another level, the connections were
not always well understood. The group of hunger-strikers, for example, paid
little regard to the larger student body represented by the Beijing
Autonomous Association of College Students. In effect, it functioned as a
little 'republic' of its own. The hunger strike had an electrifying effect
in the city, but when the strikers attempted to speak on behalf of the
students as a whole, sidestepping the BAACS, something I argued against,
there was inevitably confusion and a crisis of legitimacy. Many students
were aware of the contradiction, and desperately tried to figure out the
conceptual problems confronting them in the little time they had. But it is
fair to say that virtually all of them shared some basic understanding of
democracy, as the right to express different opinions and to participate in
public decision-making, to elect representatives or to recall them; and
these simple principles were quite sincerely, if at times awkwardly,

A different criticism that has often been made of the students is that they
did not merge with the citizenry, once the population of the capital took to
the streets in vast demonstrations. Had the student organisations
consciously sought to lead a mass movement, it would certainly have been the
wrong approach. What their 'exclusivity' showed was their reluctance to
abuse their power: they were aware of the limits of their own legitimacy.
Not all the student leaders were flawless - how could they have been? - but
I am certain that if the government had fallen, no student-led autocracy
would have followed. Instead, student organisations would have asked the
people to elect their own representatives, not least to reduce the already
unbearable burden of responsibility. The National People's Congress would
have been the most likely agency for the next steps in a long process of

What of the citizens themselves? During the 20 days of the student
occupation of Tiananmen Square, huge numbers of them paraded under the
banners of their different work-units and affiliations, as if this helped to
justify their actions. But when night fell, they went out on the streets
individually, representing only themselves. Many confronted government
officials face to face. These different ways of participating, by day and by
night, gradually merged. Once the government declared martial law, and
stepped up control of all workplaces, people realised that the socialist
structure tying their economic and political rights together into their
work-unit was collapsing in front of their eyes, and took a clear stand as
citizens, casting off the ambiguous safety of their institutional
affiliation, confident that the government was in the wrong.

What brought the people out onto the streets was not only the wish to
express sympathy with the students, but also the denial of their rights as
citizens. Whether it was the unexpected success of the 27 April march, the
proclamation of martial law on 20 May, or the first gunshots on the night of
3 June, the largest response was always in reply to the government's
toughest measures. Without this huge outburst of energy, the upheaval of
1989 would never have taken place.

These days, you can see many short videos on the internet commemorating the
events in China in 1989. What is most striking about them are the
expressions on people's faces - excitement, anxiety, hope, determination and
compassion - across all groups and generations. The demonstrators were
interested in democracy, not in overthrowing the government. Only if one
recognises this can one understand why, throughout weeks of protest, people
displayed so much self-discipline. This did not come from a fear of
government revenge, but from a strong feeling of pride in their ability to
take their fate into their own hands - visibly a legacy of the Chinese
revolution and a socialist past. The crime rate in Beijing fell sharply. Not
a single incident of looting or vandalism was reported. In Beijing and
Chengdu at least, even the thieves went on strike to protest against the
government. Spontaneously, there was order everywhere. On 17 May, in an
atmosphere of crisis, there was a televised discussion between the prime
minister, Li Peng, and some of the student leaders about the 'anarchy' of
the movement. An argument broke out over who was responsible for the scenes
in the square, interrupting one of Li's patronising speeches, and I watched
his face turn red and then white as he clutched the armrests of his chair
with both hands. I remember insisting, when my turn came to speak, that the
students were demanding rights guaranteed them by China's constitution, and
that what characterised the movement was the opposite of anarchy: calm
orderliness, confidence and self-restraint. Of course, this was what the
government was really afraid of.

Three days later, martial law was declared, and there were tanks on the
outskirts of the city. For two weeks, the people held them off. No one who
was there, as the people of Beijing confronted troops in trucks and APCs,
will ever forget their spirit. When the crackdown came on the night of 3-4
June, most of the victims were not students, but ordinary citizens.
Strangers helped each other without asking questions, and some were killed
as they tried to save the lives of others. The world remembers the image of
a single man standing alone, in front of a column of advancing tanks. The
city was full of such courageous people that night. The reason for
commemorating 4 June each year is not simply to remember its tragic cost,
but to recapture the magnificent spirit of the movement, rarely seen in
China in recent centuries.

That this was the real meaning of the social movement of 1989 can be seen
from the government's lasting fear of it. Had it been spurred mainly by
economic grievances, it would have little resonance in today's China, where
the standard of living in the cities is so much higher than it was then. If
it had been moved by a desire for things American, satisfaction has in many
ways been more than granted: fast food, Hollywood films, television quiz
shows are everywhere, business principles are exercised more vigorously at
all levels of administration than in the US itself. The reason the memory of
4 June still haunts officialdom is that it was about something that
high-speed growth and giddy consumerism have not altered. For despite all
the economic records it is setting, China today is not a sea of social calm.
Soaring inequality, collapsing welfare systems, environmental disasters,
land seizures, mistreated migrants, labour ruthlessly exploited, children
abducted and enslaved, the unemployed cast aside, and - in many ways the
most hated thing of all - rampant corruption, have bred widespread
discontent. Local explosions of popular anger, especially in the countryside
and smaller towns, where social conditions are worse and police control is
stretched more thinly, have multiplied in recent years. In this poisoned
social environment, in which the crudest profiteering by crooks and
officials, typically in league with each other, is a daily reality, the root
of such evils is clear. It is the monopoly of power by the ruling party,
which makes it impossible for people to check the abuses from which they
suffer. Only democratic rights could make the holders of power accountable
for their actions and release the popular energies needed to achieve all the
things of which they are incapable. That is why, even today, whenever
indignation over injustice or corruption boils over, the collective memory
of 1989, we can be sure, lurks in the minds of the rulers, and - how often
we can only guess - in those of the ruled.

The situation is not unchanging. This year, Professor Ding was for the first
time allowed to commemorate her son's death on 4 June. Followed by a squad
of plain-clothes policemen, she went from her apartment to the spot beside a
subway station where he was killed, and laid flowers on the pavement.
Photographs of the scene found their way onto the internet, where also for
the first time this year, an online gathering in memory of the victims of
1989 was held through a web-server based overseas, but which could be
accessed from the mainland with the help of special software. This is a
small advance; much more will have to come. Chinese society needs to
acknowledge the tragedy, condemn the killings, accept and respect the
families of those who died, and honour the work of the Tiananmen Mothers in
preserving the memory of the collective national past. It has not been in
vain. When it was learned that the young subeditor at the Chengdu Evening
News had not known what the date of 4 June referred to, many young Chinese
born in the 1980s made it clear on the internet that they did know.

Chaohua Wang <http://www.lrb.co.uk/contribhome.php?get=wang01> , the editor
of One China, Many Paths, was a member of the standing committee of the
Beijing Autonomous Association of College Students in the spring of 1989,
and after 4 June was on the Chinese government's most-wanted list. Her
article in this issue is based on two texts, originally written in Chinese,
commemorating 4 June this year and last year.