June 2009

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There have been many efforts during the last month, on this site and elsewhere, to bring history into discussions of the twentieth anniversary of June 4th (particularly via allusions the May 4th Movement of 1919), just as a year ago there were many efforts to bring history into discussions of the Beijing Games (especially via allusions to the Berlin Olympics of 1936 and Seoul Olympics of 1988). But there’s still room for this Top Five list of historically minded pieces on 1989 or 2008 that have just appeared and stand out as especially worth checking out, due to either how deeply they delve into parallels with earlier times or the novelty of their strategies for bringing together past and present.

1) On June 1, Alan Baumler of the estimable Frog-In-A-Well blog, which has separate sections devoted to the histories of different East Asian countries, offered up a very thoughtful look at a precedent for the 1989 student-led protests that pre-dated (by many centuries) the founding of the first modern Chinese university in 1898.

Here’s a snippet that we hope will encourage you to make the jump to read all of his “Student Protests in Han China”:

“Like most university students, [those of Later Han times, circa 160] were in an anomalous position in society. Imperial University students were members of the elite, but not elite enough to get government jobs just based on their family. Like later students they were also frustrated by their prospects. By the Later Han the curriculum at the University was considered hopelessly out of date and attending was no longer a reliable route to office. Students were deeply concerned with the problems of the state, which is not surprising, and they were particularly concerned with the problem of corruption and favoritism in official appointments, which is also not surprising, given that they were the ones most likely to be passed over if jobs were not given on merit. During this period the student’s enemies were not the Communist Party, but the eunuchs and their faction, who were rivals of the great aristocratic families.”

2) On June 2, Duncan Hewitt, the Shanghai-based author of China: Getting Rich First: A Modern Social History, weighed in on the meaning of the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen protests on a Newsweek blog. He has many things of interest to say in this piece, which is well worth reading in its entirety, but one notable point is that the it is not just the details about 1989 but also those about the Democracy Wall Movement that preceded it by roughly a decade that have been fading.

3) On June 5, Evan Osnos ran an insightful piece on his “Letter from China” blog called “The Other Tiananmen Moment,” which stressed the importance of thinking about the complex ties between the events of the mid-to-late 1960s and the late 1980s in the minds of some Chinese. (And for more about the Cultural Revolution-era photographs he discusses and shows, see this guest post by Jean Loh we ran in April.)

4) Regular readers of this site have seen many pieces by frequent contributor Susan Brownell exploring different aspects of the Beijing Games, including its parallels to and differences from past Olympics. (And material from those posts is also showcased in China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance.) But there’s still much new to be learned from her latest publication on the topic, which she has just done for the excellent and wide-ranging Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus. She offers her most detailed and sophisticated look to date at the connections between the Beijing Olympics and both of the previous Asian Summer Games, those that took place in Tokyo in 1964 and Seoul in 1988.

5) The same online journal has two other good pieces about Asia and the Olympics. The one with the most historical bent is a fascinating essay on the Tokyo Games by Christian Tagsold, which though focusing on Japan should be of interest to many people more concerned with China. Called “The 1964 Tokyo Olympics as Political Games,” it argues, as its title indicates, that the tendency to treat the Japanese Games as more “apolitical” than the Korean and Chinese ones that followed is misleading. (Those in a mood for looking forward rather than backward should be sure to check out as well William W. Kelly’s smart companion piece on the prospects for the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, another essay that concentrates on Japan but has relevance for other parts of East Asia as well.)

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In this third offering in our series, we limit ourselves to one short post, from a Friend of the Blog who recently moved from Shanghai to Peru, and a brief description of and link to what one of China Beat’s longtime contributors, Angilee Shah, has been up to lately: a podcast series on “Global Lives,” the most recent of which offers a perspective on Tiananmen from the former Crown Colony turned PRC SAR. For additional reading on June 4 from a perspective that takes you into a different part of the world, check out this piece on France’s special connection to the Tiananmen protesters back in 1989 (when the country was celebrating the 200th anniversary of its Revolution). Anyone intrigued to learn more about the long history of Chinese migration to Lima, alluded to in the post, should turn to Adam McKeown’s important book comparing and contrasting the histories of Chinese communities in Hawaii, Chicago, and Peru. And for some stunning images of and a report about the large rallies commemorating June 4th held in Hong Kong last week, go here.


Tom Pellman, Lima

Peru’s leading newspaper El Comercio printed a brief dispatch from its Beijing correspondent Patricia Castro describing this year’s measures by Beijing to pre-empt protests on Tiananmen. Castro’s piece mentions the government’s banning this year of then-student leader Wu’er Kaixi (exiled to Taiwan after 1989) from re-entering the mainland ahead of the anniversary. Other dissidents and activists in Beijing were also forced to leave the capital, the newspaper reports.


Aside from minor coverage in El Comercio, Peru.com, from Peru’s blogosphere, adds a report on Beijing’s efforts to censor popular websites like hotmail and twitter in addition to controling the capitol’s main square. Interestingly, in a city with more than one hundred years of Chinese immigration and tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants living in Lima, there has been less attention paid to the Tiananment anniversary than might be expected.


Angilee Shah (introducing her latest podcast, taken from her blog):

It’s June 4th today. 20 years ago, in Tiananmen Square in Beijing a huge protest movement was violently suppressed. The numbers are disputed, but hundreds, if not thousands were killed in clashes with the military…the event had a big impact on Anka Lee. He was just a kid then, but he remembers the day well. He was born in Hong Kong and was nine years old that summer in 1989. He talks about his memories and the city where he was born in this episode of Global Lives.


Tom Pellman is a freelance writer and former journalist for China Economic Review. He currently follows China-Latin America affairs at DoubleHandshake.com.

Angilee Shah is a freelance writer and past contributor to China Beat.

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In our second installment of the series (for part one click here), we return to Japan (via a follow-up post by James Farrer on coverage in Tokyo) and offer a view from Hanoi (where long-time Reuters China correspondent John Ruwitch is now based and sometimes writes on themes that link or divide the two countries).


John Ruwitch, Hanoi

Six-four didn’t make its way into the official Vietnamese media, of course, but reports about it on CNN, which is widely available in Hanoi, were not censored. When I told a Vietnamese friend I found that mildly surprising, given the somewhat similar positions that the Chinese and Vietnamese Communist Parties find themselves in, plus their much-trumpeted friendship, she laughed and said: “But we hate the Chinese”. Long history there, obviously.


I did not scour the VN blogosphere for info on six-four. I did notice, however, that a seasoned journalist/blogger called Huy Duc wrote a blog quoting from the newly published memoirs of one deposed and deceased CCP gen-sec whose name in Vietnamese is “Trieu Tu Duong”. Huy Duc discusses how DXP ultimately sided with Li Peng, leading to the crackdown, and comments: “There are men like Li Peng everywhere, but only in places where the fate of a nation lies in the hands of a few individuals could could a network of people be ground up by tanks like that.” At the end of the piece, the author concludes: “The aspirations of a people can never be crushed with tanks and bullets.” I thought that was fairly strong stuff coming from inside a country where the leadership, again, is engaged in a juggling act similar to that of its giant neighbour and freedom of speech is limited. Then again, the longer I’m in Vietnam, the more I wonder if the differences between the two out number the similarities.


James Farrer, Tokyo

The June 5th Asahi Shinbum provided the final installment of the week long series on the “Tiananmen Incident.” As did some of the earlier reports, this half-page feature provides portaits of participants in the 1989 protests and their current situations. The rhetorical emphasis of the articles is on the resilience of their views, despite the repression that immediately followed June 4 and the 20 years of imposed silence. One interview was with the former CCTV announcer Xue Fei who had displayed a notably tragic demeanor during his official announcement of martial law on May 20, and was subsequently fired. He later left China for Hungary in 1992, and returned in 2001 to teach television announcing skills in Beijing. According to the article this Asahi interview was the first time he had agreed to be interviewed in 20 years, but he has “no regrets” about his decision to support the protestors. Other interviews focused on protest participants who have continued as activists in China, including Pu Zhiqiang, a lawyer who defends dissidents, Liang Xiaoyan, who leads an environment NGO, and Fu Guoyong, the dissident historian. The message and tone of the final installment of the series thus emphasizes the determination of a very small group of individuals to continue the fight for human rights despite their small numbers and the huge obstacles they face. The Japanese media, including the Asahi, present a generally pessimistic assessment of the possibilities of systemmic political change in China (as in Japan, actually), but these stories of personal “resilience” seem to appeal to Japanese readers.

Note to my earlier post: the chart of protest leaders in the article I described referred only to students, not workers, and included the university affiliations of each individual.


John Ruwitch is the Reuters bureau chief in Vietnam; prior to moving to Hanoi, he lived in Beijing and Hong Kong for seven years covering China.


James Farrer is Director of the Institute of Comparative Culture at Sophia University.

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David Kelly, researcher at the University of Technology Sydney, translated the following opinion piece by overseas political commentator Liang Jing. He has published several previous pieces at China Digital Times, including, “Trigger for an Earthquake in Chinese Society” and “Where Does Wen Jiabao’s Faith Come From?

One of the most significant cultural phenomena in Chinese society in recent years is the growing interest in history. Everyone—elite and general populace, leftists and rightists—shows an unprecedented enthusiasm for understanding China’s past. And in 2009 a series of major historical anniversaries, including the 90th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, have pushed China’s “historical fever” to new highs. One of the major reasons stimulating the keen interest in history is that the “reforms” that followed June Fourth, returned China to a “pre-liberation” scenario almost overnight: bureaucratic corruption, moral bankruptcy, social injustice; to the point that, in some important aspects, such as higher education, the status quo in China is not as good as the KMT era, and many phenomena that people thought could not happen again, such as prostitution and the sale of official posts, not only occur, they do so on a far greater scale than in the past.

History has played a big joke on the Chinese, who having experienced countless sufferings and paid the price in countless lives, rather than gaining social progress with their bloody struggle, have turned full circle to find themselves back where they started. How exactly did this come about? Not only the elite, but also many ordinary people are puzzled by this problem. This historical puzzlement of unprecedented numbers of people is what drives China’s historically unprecedented “public history movement.”

The heroes emerging from this enlightenment are a group of intellectuals who have consciously and unconsciously enhanced the public’s knowledge of history. The role they play in promoting China’s social progress may far exceed that of the elite in control of the current political discourse. Two figures who, in my opinion, well represent these “modern heroes”, are Yi Zhongtian, and Shi Yue, who wrote Things Ming under the pen name Dangnian Mingyue [Moonlight Back Then]. One thing these two writers of very different age and experience have in common is use of modern mass media, to tell ordinary people, honestly and wittily, the true logic of the Chinese history in layman’s language. They not only subvert the “proper history” as repeatedly distorted by China officialdom, but also upgrade the “unofficial history” of China to new levels, because their telling of Chinese history is imbricated with the spirit and values of modern civilisation.

The old tales retold by Yi Zhongtian and Shi Yue, are clearly a cultural rebellion not only against the official historiography and its materials, but against the CPC’s political message as well. Because they tell people—the younger generation in particular—there are no differences in human terms between the emperors of thousands of years ago and the big shots in the political arena today; no political figures, therefore, should be mystified or treated as sacred. The CPC rulers understand the political implication of this cultural rebellion, of course, hence do not allow the likes of Yi Zhongtian to extend their historical fascination to the CPC’s history. As relations between the KMT and the CPC ease, however, more restricted areas of history are being broken, and as the fruits of research of the network of overseas Chinese continue to break the CPC blockade, a new generation of intellectuals in the PRC can see more and more of the whole picture of China’s modern history.

Even so, optimism about the Chinese people waking up from their historical bafflement, and avoiding being led into another great disaster is hardly called for. The level of materials and artifacts of the China of 90 years ago cannot be compared to today’s, of course; but the degree of political tolerance of those in power, the morale and ideological independence of academia, the energetic spirit of young people in China of that day, were incomparable greater than now. Had they seen the deference and obedience of faculty and students “dancing attendance” upon Hu Jintao when he came to Chinese Agriculture University on May 3, the students and scholars who took part in the May Fourth Movement would have given it a thumbs down.

The paradox of history is that the historical responsibility for China’s subsequent big disasters lies precisely with the movers and shakers of the May Fourth Movement 90 years ago. So, today, many of China’s intellectual elite hold severely critical attitudes towards May Fourth cultural radicalism, arguing that cultural conservatism should be the guideline for China’s future development.

I accept that cultural radicalism takes some of the blame for the disasters of the last century, but fail to understand the actual proposals of cultural conservatism. Will cultural conservatism be able to succeed where cultural radicalism has failed? Such simplistic thinking is disturbing. Connected to China’s present realities, the regime controls unprecedented resources, and has formed a huge bureaucratic class who are incapable of providing basic social security to the majority of the population. Officials in Guizhou prostituting young girls [1], profiteers in Ningxia suborning judges in a joint fraud [2]—appalling scandals like these show that the regime is losing its governing capacity. What does it actually mean to call for cultural conservatism it such times? Won’t a day come when the Chinese people, once again falling into historical bafflement, find that when making a stand is called for, no one is there to make it?

* Liang Jing, “Zhongguoren de lishi kunhuo” [Historical bafflement of the Chinese people], 5 May 2009 [梁京:中国人的历史困惑 20095 5.]

[1] Wang Zhiqiu, “Guizhou Xishui gongzhi renyuan shexian piaoshe younü an kaiting shenli” [Trial of public officials in Xishui, Guizhou charged with prostituting young girls], Xinlang, 8 April 2009 [汪志球:贵州习水公职人员涉嫌嫖宿幼女案开庭审理 新浪,20094 8 (http://news.sina.com.cn/c/2009-04-08/201517570490.shtml).].

[2] Huang Xiuli, “Ta ba 25 ming faguan la xiashui” [He dragged 25 judges underwater], Nanfang zhoumo, 30 April 2009 [黄秀丽:他把25名法官拉下水 南方周末,20094 30 (http://www.nanfangdaily.com.cn/epaper/nfzm/content/20090430/ArticelA05002FM.htm).].

A 6/4 Reader

1. Su Yang has never written anything for China Beat, but a few of us get to have lunch with him occasionally as he is a professor (of sociology) at UCI. The Orange County Register profiled Su, discussing his experiences in 1989 and after.

2. Jeff Wasserstrom’s most recent piece at the Huffington Post points out some of the good coverage on China in recent weeks (and sketches some of what was missing or wrong).

3. Friend of the blog and former student leader Wang Chaohua has completed her Ph.D. at UCLA and is graduating this weekend. UCLA Today has a nice profile of Wang that tells her personal story from 1989 to the present.

4. Initially, this page at China Digital Times was blank. Now it has been updated…a little bit…

5. Evan Osnos’s fittingly brief and somber reflection on the day.

6. We’ve been running regular installments from Phil Cunningham’s forthcoming book, Tiananmen Moon. Here is the first (that we’ve seen) review of it (at the Wall Street Journal).

7. Many of you have already seen this collection of writings at the New York Times, but in case you haven’t it’s worth reading. It includes pieces by Xiao Qiang, Woeser, Persian Xiaozhao, Jeff Wasserstrom, and others.

8. At The Guardian’s “comment is free,” Timothy Garton Ash discusses the divergent paths captured in 1989’s big historical moments.

9. And, on a related note, lest we think that 6/4 is the only news of the moment, The Times, has a list of June’s “six world-altering anniversaries.”

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