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Lessons from Tiananmen?
My musings, 20 and 34 years on.
Image: Victoria Park, Hong Kong, June 4, 1997
Since I wrote this, on June 4, 2009, another fourteen years have gone by. And so much has changed – indisputably for the worse – for the Chinese people, for the people of Hong Kong, and for everyone else as well.
From the BBC’s coverage of this year’s anniversary of the crackdown at Tiananmen Square:
Events to mark the 1989 massacre in Beijing are banned in mainland China.
For decades, Hong Kong was the only Chinese city where these commemorations were allowed, under the city's semi-autonomous economic, political and legal set up - known as "one country, two systems" - established when the city handed over to China by the UK in 1997.
But public events to mark the anniversary have since been outlawed, after the Chinese government imposed a strict national security law outlawing many forms of dissent in 2020.
The annual commemorations have not been held since 2019, after being initially banned under Hong Kong's Covid regulations.
This year, a pro-Beijing carnival is being held in Victoria Park instead.
My point here, about the moral line that separates (or, doesn’t) the government of China from that of the US, is all the more poignant now. If enough of us don’t figure out pretty quickly that the real conflict is not between one nation and another nation, but between the insitution of the state and all of humanity, then I’m afraid we are doomed.
Tiananmen - What Has Changed?
So my first thoughts, a couple of weeks ago when I realized what day it was going to be today, were “my God! Has it been TWENTY YEARS???” Twenty. Yes. Hard to believe.
I was renting a professor’s house in a small village next to the Chinese University of Hong Kong. I had just landed my first real journalism job, at a local business magazine, and was scheduled to start on Monday, June 5th. To make some money while looking for a job I had been teaching English at the Vietnamese refugee camps at night. On the night of June 3rd, I got home from teaching, late, and turned on the TV.
I remember sitting down on the floor, stunned and angry. I was desperate to “do something”, to write something that would change it all, but I had no idea what that might be.
The next day, June 4th, was a Sunday, and there was already a big demonstration planned in support of the demonstrating students. The previous weekend’s demonstration had flooded the streets with hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong’s “apolitical” residents. At least as many came out on June 4th, probably more -- despite rain, as I remember. This time though, they wore black armbands and carried signs denouncing Li Peng and Deng Xiao Ping. The demonstrations would continue for many more weeks, possibly months, until they eventually petered out.
I remember feeling at the time that the “good guys” would eventually win. They had to, right? I’m not sure when it dawned on me that they weren’t going to.
So today, seeing the commemorations and the media attention that will be gone by tomorrow, I feel sad, but I also feel that same anger and frustration. I keep seeing accounts of Chinese people who have no idea what happened twenty years ago. They’ve never even heard of it, or if they have, don’t know whether to believe the “rumors”. The “bad guys” won. They got away with murder and lived on to continue to rule by oppression. It shouldn’t be that way, and yet it is. The demonstrations haven’t changed a thing.
* * *
I’ve been back in the States now for nearly ten years, and here’s what has changed: I used to be very righteous in my condemnation of the Chinese government and, even more so, of the Chinese culture that seemed to accept tyranny so willingly. It’s a lot harder for me to dredge up that righteousness now.
Yes, the Chinese government is still evil. No, the US government does not yet practice anything quite as barbaric as the forced abortions of a “one-child” policy. But our government does imprison a higher percentage of “its” citizens than does the Chinese government -- a great many for crimes that are not real crimes. Much of our judicial system is a joke, and many many people waste years of their lives in prison because a judge or jury believed a police officer’s lies. And, as I wrote recently, “rule of law” seems to have been replaced by the brutality of “rule by man with badge and taser” -- what’s worse, most people seem to think that’s just fine. It’s getting harder and harder to point fingers at other cultures.
But I think what strikes me most today, twenty years after an event that all “right-thinking people” agree was horrific, is this: Waco.
When US government agents stormed the residence of the Branch Davidians in 1993, murdering over 70 people including 20 children, I don’t remember hearing any international outcry. I don’t remember anyone calling upon their government to boycott the brutal US regime, or to impose sanctions. Worse, I don’t remember many Americans getting incensed about it. I was living outside of the country at the time though, so maybe I missed the demonstrations that filled the streets back then.
The scale of the Waco massacre was much smaller than that of the Tiananmen massacre, to be sure. But one could argue that it was even less justified. The students and others in Beijing had at least antagonized the Chinese leadership with their demonstrations and demands for reform. While there is no excuse for the Chinese government’s response, there was at the very least something for them to respond to. A “crisis” in their eyes. The Branch Davidians were minding their own business on their own property. (Furthermore, had the authorities really been after David Koresh, there were plenty of opportunities for them to have arrested him while he was out in public prior to their siege.) The demonstrators at Tiananmen were there by choice, aware that they were risking retaliation by the government, while the Davidians were in their home -- many of them too young to even make such a choice. Yet when they were murdered in cold blood, the American people did not object.
I was at a screening of the documentary “Waco: The Rules of Engagement” a few years ago. The audience was mostly college students, and when the lights came up and people could ask questions, the most common refrain was “I didn’t even know about this!”
I don’t mean to deflect attention from the memory of those who died at Tiananmen Square twenty years ago. I do believe that they were heroic and brave people, fighting for a free society. They deserve to be honored.
But a couple of things strike me: First, that the moral line that separates the government of China from that of the US is a pretty thin one. Maybe it always has been and I just didn’t notice it so much until I was actually living here as an adult.
And second, demonstrations don’t really seem to change anything. I see that Victoria Park was packed again last night -- tonight -- and I guess that’s good. But what has it accomplished? Like sending off aid to African countries, only for it to be diverted to the thugs who keep those countries poor, demonstrations seem like an exercise in feeling good and righteous while accomplishing nothing. We get to feel like we’re “doing something”, speaking out against oppression or war. But does it really change anything? I wish someone would write in and prove me wrong about this. But I’ve never seen a public expression as moving and inspiring as the demonstrations in Hong Kong before and after the Tiananmen massacre. I’ve also never seen any evidence that they changed anything for the Chinese people.