Tiananmen at 25: Super-Sized Reading Round-Up

Now that June 4 is less than a week away, news organizations around the world are ramping up their coverage of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen protests and crackdown. Though I’ve been limiting these posts to five points each in previous weeks, there’s so much to recommend this week that I had to make this reading round-up double in size.

• Back in 1989, a number of international news organizations hired foreign students and teachers who were based in Beijing and could help with coverage of the protests. (Actually, they were first hired to help cover Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to the capital in mid-May, which got completely overshadowed by what was happening in Tiananmen Square.) Kate Phillips, now a novelist, was then an English teacher at Beijing Normal University and worked for ABC. At the Atlantic, Phillips has an excellent article that looks back at her time in Beijing and what it was like to see the protests unfold.

I know that the majority of the links I’ve been posting in these round-ups are primarily of interest to hard-core China-watchers. Even if that doesn’t describe you, take 20 minutes to read Phillips’s story. I think she does an excellent job describing the mix of anticipation and tension that crackled through university campuses in the months leading up to the demonstrations, and some of the conditions that led students to protest.

Last week, I linked to a story that Malcolm Moore wrote on the Hong Kong Triad smuggler who helped protestors escape from mainland China after June 4. Bloomberg has also published a story about “Operation Yellowbird,” the code name for this rescue endeavor, and their account is worth reading as well. For 25 years, those involved in Operation Yellowbird have largely kept quiet about how it worked, and while no one is sharing all the details, these two articles tell us a lot more than we knew before.

• This week, Moore has an article on the last Tiananmen prisoner, a factory worker named Miao Deshun who was arrested for arson as he participated in the protests. Miao’s sentence has been extended because he’s refused to do the labor required of him in prison, and he’s currently scheduled for release in 2018.

• At the New York Times, Andrew Jacobs reviews the “stability maintenance” measures that have been put into place as the June 4 anniversary approaches:

The police have been warning Western journalists to stay away from the square in the coming days or “face grave consequences,” according to several reporters summoned to meetings with stone-faced public security officials. Amnesty International has compiled a list of nearly 50 people across the country that it says have been jailed, interrogated or placed under house arrest.

“They say it’s springtime in Beijing, but it feels like winter,” said Hu Jia, an AIDS activist and seasoned dissident who has been forcibly confined to his apartment for the past three months.

The growing list of those swept up by China’s expansive security apparatus includes a group of gay rights advocates gathered at a Beijing hotel, several Buddhists arrested as they were meditating in the central Chinese city of Wuhan and an ex-soldier turned artist who staged in a friend’s studio a performance piece that was inspired by the government’s efforts to impose amnesia on an entire nation.

• James Miles of the Economist has an essay in this week’s edition that reflects on his decades as a China correspondent, now coming to an end. Miles warns against overstating the stability and cohesion of the Chinese Communist Party, echoing Deng Xiaoping’s words from 1992: “If any problem occurs in China, it will arise from within the party.”

• That same issue of the Economist also contains a review of Louisa Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia. I’ve had a copy of Lim’s book for several weeks now but have been saving it to read during the anniversary week itself. It doesn’t seem right to say that I’m “looking forward” to reading a book about such a grim subject, but Lim has received accolades for her work, and I definitely anticipate it being a valuable and compelling look at the government’s efforts to suppress discussion of 1989. You can read an extended excerpt from the book at ChinaFile.

• Eric Fish of the Sinostand blog has written a good post listing “4 Things We Overlook About Tiananmen.” Fish does a nice job reviewing some of the messiness that often gets smoothed out of the story of 1989, which is generally reduced to “Students protested for democracy, totalitarian state struck back.” In particular, his second point—that the CCP was actually the movement’s greatest beneficiary—might seem surprising, given how assiduously the government works to quash discussion of the demonstrations. But the protests gave hardliners within the party the pretense they needed to maneuver more liberal officials out of power. While I largely agree with Fish, he might have titled that section “The movement was a blessing for one faction within the CCP” to be a bit clearer about who benefited.

• The Associated Press profiles four people involved in the protests and crackdown, examining how 1989 remains a raw wound for some, like former soldier-turned-artist Chen Guang. Chen was detained in early May after staging a private art performance that referred to the erasure of 1989 in public discourse.

• In the “Lunch with the FT” series over at the Financial Times, artist Guo Jian, a 1989 protestor, recalls his memories of the night of June 3-4:

“I didn’t believe it, even though I had been a soldier,” Guo says. “In the army I had never seen that sort of violence. Then I saw the tracers and people falling around me—they were just gone. I suddenly realised, shit, this was war.”

Guo abandoned his bicycle and ran, only to be trapped in a small alley near Fuxingmen hospital. Troops were firing as they moved in on his hiding spot, their pace slowed but not stopped by the bottles and bricks thrown by people screaming “fascists”.

“There was no way out for me,” he says. “But then something really funny happened. A gust of wind blew some tear gas towards the soldiers. They couldn’t see anything and I just ran. That’s how I escaped.”

• On the evening of Wednesday, June 4, a candlelight vigil will be held in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park. The organizers estimate that more than 150,000 people will attend (though I just checked the weather forecast, and right now it’s calling for thunderstorms on Wednesday, which could reduce turnout). I’m flying to Hong Kong on Monday and will be at the vigil. I also plan to visit the newly opened June 4 Memorial Museum, which Denise Ho writes about in this Dissent online post.

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