Thursday, June 04, 2009

Tiananmen, the "Gate of Heavenly Peace"

Today's the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protest/massacre in Beijing, when unarmed student protesters were gunned down by the Chinese military in the historical Beijing landmark.

The official Chinese number of casualties was 7,000. You can imagine the unofficial number is much, much higher.

This anniversary doesn't only matter to me because I'm interested in China and Chinese history. The event itself, in 1989, is the first international political event I remember hearing about (I was 5 at the time, and still have a vivid memory of the NPR coverage, and talking about what happened with my parents at the dinner table).

But most importantly, we should remember not only those who died and how they were killed, we should stop to think about what they stood for, and the sad irony of how this anniversary is being treated in China. According to my AM New York (p 6), China has banned foreign journalists from the Square itself, shut down Twitter, Flickr, blogs, and other social networking sites, and treated the whole story with radio silence.

This is an important statement about how the world's largest, most populous, and possibly most powerful country thrives--or thinks it thrives--on the suppression of information and on depriving its citizens of their own history. We should remember not only the event but the anniversary.

Our resident China blogger Froog offers his take on why this anniversary matters (and I'm inclined to agree with him).

Here's the video of the famous single man who stood in front of the tanks (short, Chinese language).

The 1989 BBC coverage (I'll warn you, I found this clip particularly upsetting).

I'm wearing white today for memory and free speech.

40 comments:

Summer said...

Wow, I was five too. Except... I think I played barbies or pretended I was a dog on that day.

Very thoughtful post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this important anniversary.

Stuart Neville said...

I remember this very clearly as a teenager, and being excited at watching a real revolution live on TV. And then it all going horribly and violently wrong.

Thanks for this post, and the link to Froog's.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Wow. I was going to college fulltime and working fulltime. I remember the man in front of the tank and not much else.

I think it's time to explore this one and recapture a bit of history I lost in that time challenged preiod of my life.

Thanks for the links!

Charles Gramlich said...

Has it been that long? I remember it so clearly that it seems like it was just recently. Off to check out the disturbing link.

sue laybourn said...

I remember it very well. I was living in the UK at the time and watched it all unfold on the BBC. I remember the feeling of excitement and hope at the outset and I really thought things were going to change. Then, to see it go pear-shaped in such a brutal fashion was heartbreaking.
What boils my blood more than anything is that China received nothing more than a slap on the wrist. The Chinese Government continues to stamp on its own people and they are systematically destroying Tibet.

Malanie said...

I was in highschool when this occured and lived in my own world at the time. I never knew much about this. Thank you for bring it up as it is a part of history I needed to know about.

bryngreenwood said...

I remember thinking, "This will change things." (I was young and foolish, I know.) Sadly, from what I've been reading, all it changed was the intensity with which China has managed to silence this subject.

Susan said...

Five? Wow. That was my first year out on my own, after college. After all the deaths and heartbreak, I really thought the people would rise up again somehow somewhere. Still waiting, still hopeful, still...yeah, remembering.

JES said...

Froog has been making quite a bit of noise (in a small chamber, he might insist) about this over the last few months, and good for him. (Especially considering all the Internet difficulties he's had, which have been ambiguously coincidental.)

Pictures of the "Tank Man" and those three tanks taken from the middle distance are pretty common, but in a post from last year's anniversary Froog also included a long shot, which I'd never seen. That's REALLY scary.

As he mentions numerous times, the rest of the world seems pretty well informed about the event(s), compared to the "knowledge" inside the PRC. The comments here seem to confirm this: I remember it even though I was just 5, and so on. Talk about an object lesson in what "freedom of the press" really means...

B. Nagel said...

I was almost five. And I had no idea anything was happening. I probably watched Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Greenjeans without any idea the world was different.

Now I do.

Anna Claire said...

I was 6, and have no memory of it, unfortunately. But I get so riled up about free speech; it's the most important freedom we have.

One of my favorite quotes is the one by Thomas Jefferson:"...were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them."

Justus M. Bowman said...

I used to wonder whether or not "Tank Man" was run over.

Graham Chops said...

I'd have never guessed you and I are the same age. Thanks for pointing this moment in history out, though. I have only heard fleeting things about it but I'll look into it more.

brionywilliamson said...

I was six - and I was the same as you, this was the first major world event that I can remember, very faintly though. I remember that my Mum had friends living in China at the time, and she tried to explain to me what was happening on the TV but I was too little to understand.

Thanks for posting those links.

Emily Cross said...

Thanks for the post! i don't remember any of it - i was 2, but I've spent the day watching CNN reshowing of the footage.

AND i can't believe you are only 3 years older than me and you're an editor and i'm still only a student! Feeling very lazy now lol.

Jo said...

Thank you so much for posting the link to the BBC coverage. It's important to remember what happened.

Linda said...

Thank you, Moonie, for remembering. I'm reading an excellent book right now that touches Tiananmen and China, so this 'fits' in my mood.

Five? Sigh... you seem so 'old' for your age. In a good way. This day twenty years ago I was in Aero, a small island in Denmark, drinking acquavit with my younger sister and celebrating my Masters degree and her BA. I remember seeing the news - run in Danish with German subtitles - in a local bar. Everyone wept... Peace, Linda

moonrat said...

thanks, everyone who's posted with their thoughts.

Whirlochre said...

Glad to reflect
on all
who would not
genuflect.

moonrat said...

Whirlocre--I really like that.

Anonymous said...

Others have touched on this already, but at the start of these protests, I felt that things were changing in China. As I remember it, the protests started at the university with students, and went on for weeks. After a while more and more joined, so that it was more than the students.

I think that the rulers in China became scared, and it all ended so suddenly, and so badly.

It went from something so grand, to something so tragic.

And after 20 years, you wonder what good came from this event. So many paid with blood; was it worth it?

Dadrat

Froog said...

Thanks for the link, MR.

A technical footnote for you:

The "official Chinese casualty count" is derived from a survey conducted by Li Ximing, then the Party Secretary for Beijing. His report claimed a total of 241 dead and around 7,000 injured/wounded, BUT..... 23 of the dead and over 5,000 of the injured were said to be members of the police and army.

That's pretty obviously nonsense, of course. But the item you linked to was at fault in summarizing items in The Tiananmen Papers without paying attention to the fine print. The Chinese government does not acknowledge 7,000 civilian casualties.

From everything that I've heard, Li's figures of 218 (civilian) dead and 2,000 wounded seem likely to be fairly accurate. Some of the early estimates of a death toll in the thousands were probably panicky exaggerations. The author Ma Jian, as I noted in my BookBook review of his Beijing Coma, seems to imply that the death toll was higher than the 'official figure', but the worst guestimate I've come across in recent years is around 700. Ding Zilin, founder of the 'Tiananmen Mothers' movement, has been trying to draw up a definitive list of those killed in the crackdown, but I think she's come up a little shy of 190. Of course, the true total probably is rather higher than that, perhaps quite a lot higher. Many hospitals at the time destroyed (or refused to create) records of victim admissions, to try to protect them and their families from further persecution by the authorities. And such fears persist to this day, prompting many survivors and victims' families to keep silent about what they know. However, it would appear that the number of deaths was in the hundreds rather than the thousands.

It is a terrible pity that the Chinese government's policy of denial will probably prevent the full truth from ever being known.

Alps said...

Thanks for the post, Moonrat. I currently live in China and I was a kid in Hong Kong on June 4, 1989, watching our northern neighbor, "the motherland," attack all those students on TV. On the first anniversary we all wore black arm bands to my British school in Hong Kong. It was the first time I'd ever done made a public statement like that.

The last few weeks my blog has been blocked. I can get around it (and read this blog) by using a free shield program that disguises my IP address or something like that, but it's all because of June 4th. Youtube's been blocked forever too. It is desperately sad that the people here live in a bubble, really with very limited, very controlled contact with the outside world. Things are changing, but not enough.

We visited Tiananmen Square a few weeks ago and security was very tight even then.

China is a wonderful country in so many ways. Such rich history, ethnic diversity ... but people here are still living in the Middle Kingdom where the emperor (now, the party) is always right.

Anonymous said...

I remember watching that BBC footage at the time. I clearly remember Kate Adie's "stop the killing" line. This is something people will always remember, the scenes are too iconic to forget. I thought I was brave, but standing in front of a line of tanks with only some flags takes some real courage.

I_am_Tulsa said...

Thank you for this post... I was in high school at the time and 3 of my classmates were from China.

I remember a lot that was shown on TV at the time (and after on anniversaries) but what I remember the most, are the faces of my friends and the frustrations that they were dealing with.

Off to read Froog's post now. Thank you Moonrat!

moonrat said...

Thanks, Froog. I gotta say, linking to any numbers at all seemed meaningless--I couldn't imagine any of them were derived from anything meaningful. I appreciate your input where I was lazy.

I wonder, does anyone know what happened to Tank Man?

Anonymous said...

*same anon as before*

I'm sad to say, but I think they arrested and shot him.

Anonymous said...

*same anon as before*
Actually from looking around the web no one is 100% sure as to his fate. Some say he was arrested and shot later, as I believed, some say he is still hiding out in mainland China, and others that he is in Taiwan.
But whatever his fate, the image of him and the heroism of his act will live on for decades to come.

Chris Eldin said...

I also remember this, though much older than you. Still gives me the chills. Thank you for sharing the link to Froog's essay on this...

Marilynn Byerly said...

Several days ago, my local newspaper did a feature story on how the Tiananmen Massacre and its aftermath affected our local economy.

Essentially what happened is that China opened itself up to foreign business as a "sorry about that" to the international community.

Companies promptly moved into China with its slave labor wages and its lack of pollution laws. Millions of our jobs were shipped over there, the local economy faltered, and China became a world business power.

None of this made China any more open. In fact, it is even more oppressive, and the US economy is in a shambles.

Here a link to the story.
hpe.southernheadlines.com/index.cfm?section=6&story=18539

The First Carol said...

My relationship with China is complicated. They gave me my greatest gift and, in the process I believe, they experienced their greatest loss. Many aspects of their culture I have to stretch so far to understand that I break and return no better educated than before. Tiananmen is a dancing man in front of a tank. Nixon is the American who opened the door so Americans could travel there. Hong Kong is a hillside of lights on a dark night and a heart stopping landing on what appeared to be a sliver of land lapped on all sides by deep ocean, a sleepless night before I placed my feet on China’s dirt. Although, I would much prefer to talk about China’s beauty, I know we must see through unfiltered eyes what is painful to embrace.

Yes, remember the dead, what they did means something, but remember too, in her heart, there is something good there. I have experienced it.

JES said...

Thanks for the link to the NYT Lens blog, Moonie. Very interesting -- including the link that it provided, to a video of the Tank Man episode. THAT I'd never seen, either... wow, watching that guy actually move in front of Tank #1 when it tried to go around him!

Nom de Gare said...

Wow. Wow. The BBC footage is deeply moving, terrible and starkly educational. Froog's blog likewise says everything very well. Thanks for posting these and for commemorating this anniversary on your blog.

I also remember it, but quite obscurely. I was nine; I don't remember the actual coverage, just my parents being glued to the radio and television, and them being memorably upset by what they'd heard and seen. I'm glad the anniversary is being remembered now so widely, in the West at least. 1989 now seems at once so recent and so long ago.

As an Australian, it makes me think about my country's close economic relationship with China today. It's a good thing, I still believe, that we've forged closer cultural relations and come to understand one another better. But are we using these new (largely financial) ties to do what we can to improve human/civil rights in China, or are we just taking the economic benefits and running?
The latter, I suspect. To our shame.

Thanks for making us stop and think, Moonrat.

Tara Maya said...

This brought back memories of when I heard the news. I was in Africa, in a nondemocratic country, where the struggle resonated with unexpected immediacy.

Stephanie said...

Thanks for the post. I was just in China, at Tianamen square, in February. It was an eerie experience. We were the only five Americans there and all of us thought about that day 20 years ago whent he tanks rolled in. It was a very difficult, and moving experience.

This was my third trip to China and while I LOVE the Chinese people (seriously, there is a sense of community there that we don't share here in the U.S.) the government's presence is strongly felt everywhere. Our first trip was in 2005 and every morning we would open the newspaper to find that the government had executed someone else for taking "bribes." I've seen people hauled away in leg irons, the military marching through the streets with machine guns balanced on their shoulders, and I've talked to people who look over their shoulders when they speak, checking each word to make sure it's appropriate to be telling a foreigner. My Chinese friends have had their shops taken away by the government because they were selling more than the "government approved" merchandise. It is a very sad situation. Especially because as someone else said, there is so much that is GOOD about China.

Things have changed, a little, in the four years since my first trip. Now the executions are buried on the third or fourth page of the paper instead of splattered across the front page.

cindy said...

http://www.8asians.com/2009/06/04/twenty-years-later-remembering-tiananmen-square/

ty, moonie.

Froog said...

Thanks again for linking to me, Moonie. 57 visitors from EdAss in the last few days!

Thanks for another good link, Cindy.

Froog said...

Did you see on the NYT's 'Lens' blog the other day they posted a previously unnpublished picture of the Tank Man (at street level, just visible in the distance, as people in the foreground flee from gunfire) by a reporter called Terril Jones?

moonrat said...

I did--I Twittered it but forgot to link it here. Thanks for the reminder. It's amazing.

carolinestarr said...

The summer I was sixteen I was in Hong Kong, one year to the day of the massacre. I participated in a silent deomonstation with thousands of other young people. There were posters in the train stations with the pictures of people who'd lost their lives. Almost all banners, like the posters, were black and white. We all wore stickers that said (in Cantonese)"The people will never forget." It was incredibly moving to be a part of something so big, letting the silence be "heard" around the world.