Tiananmen

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A week (or so) after the anniversary of the “May 35th” events (as some Chinese netizens put it to circumvent automatic blocks on mention of a highly charged date), we got several more responses to our request to Friends of the Blog for word on how June 4th was commemorated, discussed, or ignored in various parts of the world. The most substantial (reproduced in full below) is a second contribution to the series (click here for her first) by Paola Voci (an Italian-born, American-trained, New Zealand-based specialist in Chinese visual culture whose book, China on Video: Small Screen Realities, is due out later this year). [Her post explains the eye-catching image we are running here, which she sent to us along with her e-mail.]

We also heard from a couple of people regularly or temporarily based in Central or Eastern Europe, both of whom noted how relatively little interest there was in looking back to Tiananmen and connecting China’s 1989 to the upheavals that took place in that same year in the region.

Grabriella Ivacs, a Budapest-based archivist at Central European University’s extraordinary Open Society Archive (it has holdings on human rights, the history of Communism in Europe in particular, and other topics that are too special to try to summarize, so we’ll just encourage readers to make the jump and explore their website, where they’ll also find information on the innovative exhibitions OSA has mounted, some of which have dealt at least in part with China) wrote to say that “Hungarian papers and online news portals were not particularly interested in Beijing events” last week. She stressed that “Hungary is going through a serious political crisis, and [the press in] early June was focused on [the] EU election campaign.” She notes that there were occasional articles on the anniversary, including one in a “left wing daily,” Nepszabadsag, that placed the Massacre “in the context of 1989…the symbolic year of Transition in Eastern and Central Europe,” but, “(i)nterestingly,” claimed that the “1989 changes in Europe had no direct connection” to the contemporaneous “Beijing events.”

A. Tom Grunfeld, an American scholar spending the year in Romania (and a twotime past contributor to this site before), confirmed this sense of relative lack of interest: “Apart from CNN and a single article in every Romanian and Hungarian paper on the appropriate day (edits from the wire services as best as I can make out) there is no interest here.”

Here’s Paola’s comment in full:

Yesterday I got my copy of The New Zealand Listener (the 13-19 July issue) in the mail and, to my surprise, “Has China learnt from the Tiananmen Massacre?” was included as part of a much longer feature story on “Wealth: How Chinese consumers could drive our recovery? ” While NZ seemed uninterested to remember June 4th when most other countries’ media were covering the anniversary (i.e., just before or on that very day), one of NZ most popular national magazines chose to have a reflection on those events 10 days later, when almost every other national media had moved to different topics. But maybe, rather than reading this choice as a belated answer, one can interpret it as an attempt to look at the event outside the specific temporality of the 20 year anniversary and frame it instead in the on-going economic and political engagement of NZ with China. Tiananmen becomes a provocative footnote to the economic partnership that is both needed and feared by many in NZ.

The Tiananmen anniversary was discussed from two main critical angles: firstly, the issue of forced memory loss imposed by the Chinese government and how, despite the government’s efforts, many are still remembering; secondly, much more interestingly (I think), June 4th was remembered with a piece on Zhao Ziyang’s Secret Journal (an edited extract from the book’s preface (by one of the three co-editors, Adi Ignatius).

But, possibly even more interestingly, the magazine’s cover itself was particularly surprising as the image (attached) clearly evokes the visual rhetoric of the Cultural Revolution posters; one wonders how familiar this visual metaphor is to the Kiwi readership. I personally find the cross-cultural mix (or mess?) that the image conveys is really intriguing and open to quite contradictory readings. See and judge for yourself.

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We wrote to the peripatetic Pico Iyer, a Friend of the Blog, to see how June 4th was marked wherever he happened to be this year on the anniversary date. He sent us the following ruminations, in which he alludes to the mid-1980s when he first went to Beijing and first saw Lhasa, at a time when each, in ways he’s described elsewhere, was a very different place than it is now:

On the Fourth of June–the great annual feast-day at my old English school, the very opposite of its associations for modern Chinese–I was, as I so often am, at my regular Benedictine monastery on the coast of California. The bells tolled for vigils before the light had come up and wisps of fog ran up the eucalyptus-shaded hillside. Then there was silence and more silence until the next tolling of the bells.

Steller’s jays landed on my wooden fence. Rabbits scurried off into the undergrowth. The sun rose over a hill to the south, making the ocean below sparkle and recasting us all in a golden light. Thoughts of Beijing in 1985 and Lhasa in the same year came back. Everything changes and turns and goes round and nothing much seems to move at all.

The monastery and the daybreak singing of the white-hooded monks seemed, in certain regards, the perfect way to think and ask questions about modern China’s irresistible rise.

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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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