The Tiananmen Square Massacre, Revisited

Yesterday, which passed largely unnoticed, was the 19th anniversary of the massacre of peaceful protestors in Tiananmen Square, the symbolic heart, politically speaking, of the People’s Republic of China. Tiananmen means Gate of Heavenly Peace.

Located at the center of Beijing, it was the scene of the violent dispersal of pro-democracy demonstrators, composed of students, workers, academics, intellectuals and ordinary folk, who had gathered in a spontaneous series of protests starting in April of 1989 against the authoritarianism and economic policies of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC). It has often been claimed, with much pride on our part, that the protests were inspired by the People Power revolt which toppled Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

The call for reform was met with tanks and bullets on June 4, resulting in the deaths of hundreds, possibly thousands, of protesters. The most enduring image of the Tiananmen massacre is the now iconic picture of a lone protester, casually holding what appear to be shopping bags, standing in the path of, and facing down, a column of monstrous tanks.

The Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 were in large measure sparked by the sudden death of former Secretary General Hu Yaobang, a popular reformist who was purged from office by the ruling CPC clique.

According to Wikipedia:

Following the violence, the government conducted widespread arrests to suppress protesters and their supporters, cracked down on other protests around China, banned the foreign press from the country and strictly controlled coverage of the events in the PRC press. Members of the Party who had publicly sympathized with the protesters were purged, with several high-ranking members placed under house arrest, such as General Secretary Zhao Ziyang. The violent suppression of the Tiananmen Square protest caused widespread international condemnation of the PRC government.

Almost two decades later, the Chinese government has yet to lay to rest the ghosts of Tiananmen. True, the long sought for economic reforms have largely been achieved, brought about by forces and events within and outside of China. Tiananmen spurred China to channel its collective energies towards economic growth. It is not an overstatement to say that, from the point of view of economics, China rose from the ashes of Tiananmen to become a superpower. However, the repressive state machinery which brought the 1989 demonstrators to the streets remain firmly in place, albeit now more P.R.-savvy and conscious of world opinion. The implementation of Chinese political policy is still brutal, as shown by the recent crackdown on dissidents in Tibet.

Although not as devastating in terms of casualties as the recent earthquake which destroyed the Sichuan region, Tiananmen was a seismic event in Chinese history. It signaled the beginning of China’s ascent from years of stagnation to its present role as a major global free-market player.

But the wounds have not fully healed, and the recent Sichuan earthquake reopened them. The questions have been asked: If China can mourn those who died in Sichuan, why can it not mourn those who perished in Tiananmen Square? Why can China not bring the openness and sense of community which characterized the earthquake relief efforts to addressing, once and for all, the grievous mistakes made in Tiananmen ?

As Ma Jian, author and dissident whose works are banned in China, wrote in an article published by the New York Times:

Watched on television screens around the world, the Tiananmen massacre was a defining moment in 20th-century history. Like Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968, it has become a global symbol of totalitarian repression. But in China the subject is taboo. Even in the privacy of their homes, parents dare not discuss it with their children. Blinded by fear and bloated by prosperity, they have succumbed to a collective amnesia.

Some might object to recalling calamities of the past while China is struggling to cope with a present disaster. Already the Western news media has turned its attention away from political repression in China and Tibet, out of respect for the dead.

But grief refuses to be channeled. It spills over. In Sichuan, it turns to anger as parents demand to know why 6,898 schools collapsed during the quake while government buildings remained standing. As the nation mourns, it will begin to remember the deaths it has been forbidden to recall: not only the thousands who were slaughtered in 1989, but the tens of millions who died under Mao’s rule during the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

The government leaders know that despite their efforts to erase history, the wounds inflicted by past repression are festering. With each anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre it becomes clearer that behind the bravado, the party is as fearful as a deer caught in the headlights.

There is an expression in Chinese that says, “One can only stand up from the place where one fell.” If China is to truly stand up and deserve its powerful position in the international community, it must return to the place where it fell. The regime must reveal the truth about past crackdowns and apologize to the victims and their families; release the hundred or so people still jailed for their connection to the Tiananmen movement, and the tens of thousands of other political prisoners languishing in jails and labor camps. And it must introduce democratic reforms.

The Chinese people have been reminded by the earthquake that lives are not expendable and that deaths cannot go unmourned. Now they have to extend that understanding to the victims of Tiananmen.

There’s also a saying in Pilipino, “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan, hindi makakarating sa paroroonan” (One who knows not how to look back, will not reach his objective). It may now be the time for China to look back at Tiananmen.

3 thoughts on “The Tiananmen Square Massacre, Revisited”

  1. Hi, some facts for your reivew:

    – The Chinese government released official casualty figure of 241.

    – Declassified NSA document shows US intelligence estimated casualty of 180-500.

    Check Wikipedia for sources.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Mr. Liu. Here’s what Wikipedia says about the Tiananmen deaths:

    The reported tolls ranged from 200–300 (PRC government figures), to 300–800 (The New York Times), and to 2,000–3,000 (Chinese student associations and Chinese Red Cross).

  3. So if we check Wikipedia for Tiananmen Square death toll sources then we have to choose a number from among PRC government, NY Times and Chinese Red Cross.

    Hmmm… I would bet my money on the Chinese Red Cross statistics. What’s wrong with the PRC government? Maybe they think four digit numbers are unlucky.

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