Tiananmen, 25 Years Later: What Have We Learned?

By | June 4, 2014 at 8:48 am | No comments | Blog | Tags: ,

June 4, 2014 will mark the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing. In the spring of 1989, protests had been mounting against the governing Chinese Communist Party’s corruption and restrictions on free speech. At its peak, the movement drew nearly a million students, labourers, and civilians for peaceful protests in Tiananmen Square. On June 4, 1989, the government authorized the military to open fire on unarmed civilians to suppress the protests. The government said 200-300 people were killed but the China Red Cross places the death toll between 2,000-3,0000.

Many people in China deny that the massacre ever took place. Charlie Foran, former PEN Canada president, considers what the Tiananmen protests have come to mean 25 years later. In this piece, a shorter version of which was originally published in the Globe and Mail, Foran argues that June 4th has had much more influence outside of China than within.

What Beijing learned from Tiananmen: Democracy isn’t needed for prosperity

Charlie Foran

Charlie Foran

Cheuk Kwan still can’t believe it. Over and over, the veteran activist encounters young Chinese studying in Canada who’ve never heard of June 4th, 1989. Literally. They don’t know about the army crackdown in Beijing, or the two months of protest that preceded it.

The iconic emblems of China’s flirtation with political reform are equally unfamiliar to these students abroad. And yet, several Canadian university campuses commemorate June 4th, using those very symbols.

At the University of British Columbia, a replica of the Goddess of Democracy statue, famously wheeled onto Tiananmen Square in the final days, stands outside the student union building. A memorial sculpture depicts a crushed bicycle at the University of Toronto. Along with ‘tank man’ – the lone young adult who blocked a tank column in a city street – these are the most indelible visuals from China’s tragic spring.

Beijing, China, June 2, 1989: Statue of the "Goddess of Democracy" built by student protesters against the Communist government, in Tiananmen Square. The statue was destroyed and hundreds killed two days later when the army stormed the Square. Photograph by ALAN CHIN

Beijing, China, June 2, 1989: Statue of the “Goddess of Democracy” built by student protesters against the Communist government, in Tiananmen Square. The statue was destroyed and hundreds killed two days later when the army stormed the Square. Photograph by ALAN CHIN

They are in the West, at least. In China, a quarter-century of relentless propaganda and coercion has disappeared a monumental national event. Some of those visiting students, Kwan admits, may simply fear admitting to any knowledge of their censored past.

But in the West, too, we’ve largely forgotten the essence of spring 1989. The movement, we now think, had something to do unruly protests and unreasonable demands, and it all ended badly, and predictably, and maybe for the best. After all, hasn’t China made remarkable progress in the intervening twenty-five years?

With the quarter-century anniversary of Tiananmen Square, it is worth re-examining the most extraordinary, and deliberately distorted, period in recent Chinese history. That period encompasses years, not months, and marked a moment when the nation debated at the highest level changing its political direction.

Had it done so, China in 2014 would indeed be different. But so might the world. What didn’t happen in Beijing in June 1989 may yet prove to have had as much global impact as what did occur that autumn in Berlin, and two years later in Moscow.

The collapse of many single-party states led some to declare the era as the triumph of social democracies – the ‘end of history’ theory that briefly held popular sway. Instead, China’s rise to superpower has proven a happy model for authoritarian governments hoping to pull their economies out of poverty without sacrificing control, or conceding ground to notions of civil society and universal human rights.

Emerging from the disaster of Maoism in the late 1970s, China cautiously explored opening up to the West. No less than supreme leader Deng Xiaoping said it scarcely mattered if the cat was black or white – so long as it got the mouse. Deng, a master of folksy aphorisms containing stern dictums, also told his people not to worry too much about those outside influences: if you open a door, a few flies are bound to get in.

More important than any aphorism, the octogenarian Deng promoted the careers of the younger Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang, senior Party faithful with moderate reform instincts. He also encouraged artists to travel abroad, among them Ai Weiwei and Nobel prize winner Gao Xinjiang, and permitted ‘democracy salons’ at universities.

In the ensuing decades the Chinese evolved definitions of themselves as having individual economic agency, but not political.

Significant material prosperity, including the emergence of a large middle-class, was achieved without the bother of the civil society underpinnings once believed essential.

Marxist China needed desperately to reform its economy, bring it more in line with successful western versions. To do that, it was believed political institutions had to evolve accordingly.

Charles Burton, an associate professor of political science at Brock University with deep connections to the country, summarizes the thinking in the lead up to spring 1989. “If you change the economy, you change the government,” he recalls. “It was that simple.”

Burton shared the optimism of his Chinese friends. “I was convinced that market economics had to have liberal institutions in order to function,” he says. Cheuk Kwan, then an IT expert in Hong Kong, thought the same. “There was a natural progression,” the chair of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China says. “Deng Xiaoping planted the seeds himself.”

Then came the death of Hu Yaobang in April. Students gathered in Tiananmen Square to commemorate the former party secretary, and issue modest requests for reform. Forgotten now is that his replacement Zhao Ziyang visited them on the square to show his support. No social democrat, Zhao also wanted the country to function better – closer in model to Singapore, perhaps, than Taiwan.

But Deng Xiaoping quickly came to regret the forces he had unleashed, especially once workers started to dominate the movement. “He cut down his own tree,” Cheuk Kwan says.

Martial law was declared and Zhao Ziyang placed under house arrest. Army divisions moved into the capital the night of June 3rd with orders to clear the square, and the surrounding streets.

Though shocked by the massacre, Charles Burton assumed the process would continue. He accepted a position at the Canadian embassy in Beijing in 1992, where he helped assemble a Civil Society program, using CIDA money to train judges, among other projects.

“We thought that civil society was inevitable,” Burton says. “The new middle class would want a say in their society.” Underlying the assumption was that the political reforms needed to make the new economy work would create engaged citizens.

“I had the illusion that if I could get a few genuinely non-governmental groups started,” he says, “they would develop a sense of themselves as citizens, rather than passive recipients of orders from higher up.”

That didn’t happen. In the ensuing decades the Chinese evolved definitions of themselves as having individual economic agency, but not political. Significant material prosperity, including the emergence of a large middle-class, was achieved without the bother of the civil society underpinnings once believed essential.

More and more, the witnesses are subject to twin humiliations. Westerners, once avid consumers of their harrowing stories, have lost interest. Certain Chinese, either officially working for the state or raised on its distortions, hurl calculated abuse.

How did the Chinese government pull it off? “Brute force,” Cheuk Kwan says. “Cracking down on all forms of dissent. Both physical and thought control.”

Had China pursued dual economic and political reform, Kwan suspects the country would be in about same position as a world power in 2014. But a much stronger foundation would bolster that status. “China has built a big, splashy house on quicksand,” he says. “The foundation is weak for its lack of political reform.”

Charles Burton sees China tilting towards an even deeper authoritarianism under leader Xi Jinping. “Xi is explicitly opposed to any expansion of civil society,” he notes. “He prefers to increase the security sector instead.” In short, expect greater surveillance and control. Don’t expect due process of law or free speech anytime soon.

And if the 21st century belongs to China, as many are suggesting? “The China model could de-incentivize democracy movements,” Burton says. “This should be troubling to political scientists and supporters of human rights.”

Even if Deng hadn’t called in the army in June 1989, and had allowed Zhao Ziyang to oversee cautious reforms, the country might still have hesitated before the door of civil society. Few such traditions exist in China, and as Charles Burton notes, the “idea of the autonomous citizen” remains somewhat outside the national purview.

But opening that door enough to let in a few flies would have spared China the psychological agony of promoting all those revisions and denials of its own history. For a quarter-century now, Chinese driven into exile by the massacre have born witness around June 4th to what they experienced.

Beijing, China, June 2, 1989: Student protesters in Tiananmen Square. The square and the surrounding area were stormed by the army with great loss of life on the the next night, June 3-4. Photograph by ALAN CHIN

Beijing, China, June 2, 1989: Student protesters in Tiananmen Square. The square and the surrounding area were stormed by the army with great loss of life on the the next night, June 3-4. Photograph by ALAN CHIN

More and more, the witnesses are subject to twin humiliations. Westerners, once avid consumers of their harrowing stories, have lost interest. Certain Chinese, either officially working for the state or raised on its distortions, hurl calculated abuse.

Liane Lee-Ma is one of those witnesses. Now a homemaker in Cleveland, Lee-Ma fled to Toronto after staying on Tiananmen Square for the final week, and the night of June 3rd. Part of a contingent of pro-Beijing Hong Kong students, she formed a human chain and pleaded with soldiers not to open fire. “They are all your children,” she chanted.

Lee-Ma also held a teenager, shot in the back of the neck, in her arms, and ended up in a Beijing hospital whose emergency room corridors were covered in the blood of protestors.

“For twenty-five years I’ve been called a liar for recalling what happened,” she says. The goddess of democracy, the footage of tank man, are fabrications. The shelves of books and documentaries about the student movement are tools in a Western conspiracy to denigrate China. “It’s beyond ridiculous,” she adds of the revisionism.

Ridiculous it may be, but effective in achieving the seemingly impossible – keeping the billion plus Chinese in the dark about a moment that might have changed their destinies as citizens of a society, not simply an economy.
At the twenty-fifth anniversary mark – early days yet in passing lasting historical judgment – the verdict appears unanimous: the astonishing spring of 1989 didn’t change China. Ironically, at this stage the change it brought on may be more pronounced in the wider world.

Charlie Foran holds degrees from the University of Toronto and University College, Dublin, and has lived in China, Hong Kong, Ireland and the United States. Now he resides in Peterborough with his wife and two daughters. Charlie has published 11 books, including the award-winning biography of Mordecai Richler, Mordecai: The Life and Times, and too many articles to count. His most recent novel, Planet Lolita, is set in Hong Kong amidst a new SARS epidemic and told in the voice of 15-year-old Xixi and the language of social media. Charlie is a former president of PEN Canada.

Alan Chin was born and raised in New York City’s Chinatown. Since 1996, he has worked in China, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Central Asia. Domestically, Alan followed the historic trail of the civil rights movement, documented the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and covered the 2008 presidential campaign. He is a contributing photographer to Newsweek and The New York Times, editor and photographer at BagNews, and his work is in the collection of the Museum Of Modern Art. Alan Chin is a member of the Facing Change Collective.

Headshot of Charlie Foran by James Lahey

All featured photographs taken on  June 2, 1989 in Beijing, China by Alan Chin.

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