Tiananmen Massacre: The world remembers

June 10, 2019 13:02
A police vehicle is deployed in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 4. Chinese authorities stepped up vigil on the 30th anniversary of the violent crackdown on democracy activists. Photo: Reuters

Thirty years ago this month, the world witnessed a horrifying sight as armed Chinese troops were ordered to crush peaceful Chinese protesters asking for reforms, in Tiananmen Square in Beijing as well as cities across the country. Truly, it was, as the late dissident-astrophysicist Fang Lizhi said, a unique case of a nation invading itself.

No one knows for sure how many people perished on the night of June 3 and the morning of June 4, 1989 because the Communist Party refuses to talk about the massacre. The very date “June 4” cannot be mentioned and parents are not permitted to mourn children who were killed.

As a result of the government-imposed amnesia – with the topic banned in schools and in the media – most young people in the country today know nothing about the events that occurred three decades ago, events that shocked the outside world. But while the party has induced a state of artificial amnesia within China, the outside world has not forgotten and refuses to be silenced.

The United States this year issued a statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that was especially harsh in its condemnation of the Communist Party, saying the events in June 1989 “still stir our conscience and the conscience of freedom-loving people around the world.”

Several other foreign ministers, including those of the European Union, Canada, Australia and Sweden, also issued statements voicing similar sentiments. But Tokyo, perhaps unwilling to jeopardize its improving relationship with Beijing, was moderate in its comments, calling the massacre “a truly regrettable situation in which many lives were lost.”

But the Japanese media has taken a different position. The Japan Times, in an editorial, asserted that while public discussion is muted, if not suppressed, in China, “the rest of the world has an obligation to remember what happened that fateful night so that it has no illusions about the nature of the regime with which it must deal.”

It recalled that since the 1990s, with Japan in the lead, “the overwhelming inclination of states has been to try to ignore those events and work with China to exploit market opportunities or change the Chinese leadership’s thinking and behavior.”

It concluded: “Thirty years later, that approach can be declared a failure.”

The New York Times, too, editorially condemned China’s leadership for “continuing to resist everything the protesters demanded – a democratic and law-abiding society, an independent judiciary, an end to one-party rule.”

The Times of London called China “a Leninist state afraid of challenge from the dead as much as the living.”

Surprisingly, perhaps, the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, owned by China’s Alibaba Group, voiced disagreement with the Chinese government. “Despite an attempt to induce June 4 amnesia,” it said, “the crackdown has left a deep wound not only in the hearts of many families but in the whole nation.”

“It is time for Beijing to reflect,” the Post said, deviating from the position of the Chinese government but taking common cause with international media, “and make amends by recognizing the patriotism of the movement so that China can move on.” It is extraordinary for a Chinese-owned paper to openly disagree with the Chinese government on such a fundamental issue.

While the Financial Times didn’t publish an editorial, one of its chief pundits, Gideon Rachman, commented that, back in 1989, the United States and Europe considered the fall of the Berlin Wall of much greater significance in the great sweep of history than the Tiananmen crackdown. But, the pundit wrote, future historians might conclude that Tiananmen “ensured that the rising power of the 21st century would be an autocracy not a democracy.” This is certainly a viewpoint worth pondering.

The artist and political activist Ai Weiwei, writing in The Guardian newspaper, argued that since the Communists based their legitimacy on the violent overthrow of the previous government, the military suppression of protesters meant it had become an illegitimate government.

“China is a society without citizens,” Ai wrote. “And even after 70 years in power the government still does not trust its people.”

It is fitting that the world should commemorate the courage shown by the people of China, who publicly and peacefully called for political and economic reforms 30 years ago, only to suffer death and persecution at the hands of their rulers, the Communist Party.

It is also appropriate to note that the military that suppressed people exercising their lawful rights is incongruously named the People’s Liberation Army. The final irony is that in a country called the People’s Republic of China, the people have never had a chance to choose their government.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.