Tiananmen at 25: Massive Reading Round-Up, June 3 Edition

Wong tweet

Edward Wong of the New York Times tweeted the above yesterday, but I’m afraid the Chinese authorities are trying to close the barn door after the horse has escaped. As you can see below, foreign media are publishing Tiananmen stories left and right, and I’m afraid I did a very bad job trying to keep this reading round-up short. I’m sure I’ll have more stories to recommend after tomorrow’s anniversary itself, though I’ll be spending July 5 flying from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, so it might take me a while to catch up with everything.

Here we go …

• In a very worrisome move, Hong Kong prevented a Taiwanese academic from entering the Special Administrative Region on Friday as he traveled there to attend a forum on Tiananmen. Since its handover to the PRC in 1997, Hong Kong has continued playing by a different set of rules, permitting freedom of expression on subjects like Tiananmen—which the government in Beijing might disapprove of, but hasn’t blocked. But this case is one example of how Beijing is increasingly making its presence known in the former British colony.

• Also worrisome is that Guo Jian, the artist whose interview with the Financial Times I recommended in the last round-up, has now been taken into custody by authorities in Beijing—presumably for giving that interview. Although Guo was born and raised in China, he holds Australian citizenship, and Australia is seeing what it can do to get him released.

Goddess of Democracy replica at the Chinese University of Hong Kong
Goddess of Democracy replica at the Chinese University of Hong Kong

• The New York Times is posting Tiananmen stories all week at its Sinosphere blog, including two very interesting and moving Q&As with people who were witnesses to the June 4 massacre. Edward Wong interviewed Hong Kong-born photojournalist Liu Heung Shing, who covered the Tiananmen protests for the Associated Press. Chen Guang, the soldier-turned-artist who was detained in early May for his 1989-related piece of performance art, answered questions from Andrew Jacobs before being taken into custody. Chen’s account of the night of June 3-4 really drives home how young and scared some of the soldiers were—perhaps even more than some of the demonstrators.

Also at Sinosphere, check out this post by Chris Buckley on the “Goddess of Democracy” statue that protestors erected five days before the demonstrations were crushed. Along with the Tank Man, the Goddess of Democracy remains one of the most important symbols of the 1989 protests, and I’ve seen versions of the statue on at least two college campuses in Hong Kong.

• Ananth Krishnan of the Hindu writes about a dinner he had a few years ago with students at Beijing University, where many of the student leaders of 1989 studied. Although it’s common to hear that Chinese youth today don’t know anything about Tiananmen, Krishnan found that to be untrue—but the students’ opinion of the government’s response to the demonstrations might be surprising:

Without exception, they appeared to buy into the party line. “China was in chaos, the party had no choice,” one student told me. These were not students who were clueless about what happened on the night of June 3. They all had software that allowed them to scale the “Great Firewall” of Internet restrictions, and watch on YouTube the videos showing bleeding students and tanks moving into Chang’an Avenue. Yet they found Deng’s reasoning understandable, if only because of the two decades of prosperity that have followed 1989. They were the generation that accepted Deng’s grand bargain: prosperity for silence.

• For a different perspective from a member of the “post-90s generation,” see this Tea Leaf Nation post at Foreign Policy, in which an anonymous Chinese student studying in the United States explains what he or she learned about Tiananmen after leaving China, and why s/he would rather not discuss it publicly:

The Internet has chilled an honest reckoning with Tiananmen, not enabled it. While the web has given rise to a level of pluralism China has never seen before, and minted new, grassroots opinion leaders, it has also made everything we write, both in public and in private, more easily surveilled. Before the digital era, officials didn’t have the ability to eavesdrop on every conversation. But now, if I post something politically sensitive online, the conversation is digitally recorded. Everything becomes part of our permanent record.

• If you have access behind Science magazine’s paywall, check out this really interesting article by Mara Hvistendahl on how the Tiananmen crackdown affected China’s scientific community. “Tiananmen and its aftermath,” Hvistendahl writes, “drove an exodus of talent and cemented a top-down research system that is prone to corruption.” The 1980s had been an exciting, increasingly open time for Chinese scientists who were finally allowed to prioritize knowledge over ideology (the reverse had been true during the Mao era). But some of the loudest voices in the protests came from scientists, who then fled the country after June 4. Students who had been studying abroad during the spring of 1989 chose not to come home. And Chinese science has never recovered the vitality that it had during the years leading up to Tiananmen.

• Nick Stember, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia, put together an interesting blog post looking at cultural productions related to 1989, including the short animated film Sunrise over Tiananmen Square and two graphic novels.

• Back in the spring of 1989, photojournalist Alan Chin was an 18-year-old on a family vacation to visit his parents’ hometown in Guangdong Province, which they had left 40 years before and would never see again. As he describes in this Reuters article, the family flew to Beijing just days before the June 4 crackdown:

But as I struggle to clearly recall those late May and early June days from what feels like another life, I am struck that we did not take the entire situation more seriously. Daily life went on in the city. Army soldiers dawdled from their parked trucks lined up on the boulevards, chatting with passersby and eating popsicles. We visited the Ming Tombs, and dined on Peking duck. The Forbidden City was closed, but the Temple of Heaven was open.

I wandered through the Square a few times. I took pictures, though not very many. Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” alternated with the “Internationale” over the student loudspeakers. I did not talk to many people, not only because of my poor Mandarin, but also because I was content to merely observe. I wasn’t sure what I was really doing there, and I didn’t think through what might happen next and why it might be important. All of China was new and interesting to me; a massive political upheaval seemed just par for the course.

• Chester Yung of the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report explains the changing meaning of the Hong Kong candlelight vigil held every year on the evening of June 4. While the public assembly was once about mourning the victims of the crackdown, Yung writes, in recent years it has been more about expressing many Hong Kongers’ dissatisfaction with Beijing. Others in the SAR, however, are pro-PRC, and the Economist reports that some will be holding a counter-protest outside Victoria Park while the vigil is going on.

• National Geographic has an excellent Q&A with Louisa Lim on her time in China and why she decided to write The People’s Republic of Amnesia, fully knowing that she might never get another visa to enter China:

I think it is a book that needed to be written, so I wrote it. Any price that I might have to pay will be far less than the price the people that I spoke to for the book have paid in the past and may pay in the future. For me, it may be sad not to go back to China, but it’s not the end of the world.

• The South China Morning Post has put together an extensive multimedia package on Tiananmen. I’ve only had the chance to look at a little bit of it so far, but it seems well worth checking out in full.

• Some of the foreign reporters who covered the protests and crackdown have published short reminiscences of what they saw back in 1989 and what it was like to be in the middle of it all. See this China Real Time Report interview with Adi Ignatius, and this essay by Voice of America correspondent Al Pessen. Also on the subject of international media, at the Washington Post, Michael Streissguth has an article on how CBS came to dominate coverage of the protests through a combination of luck and having an ear to the ground when other networks dismissed the China story.

• Ian Johnson interviewed activist Hu Jia for the New York Review of Books blog. Hu was only 15 years old in 1989, and could only attend the protests in between studying for his high-school exams. Because of his political activities, Hu is currently under house arrest, but he shook off his security officers long enough to meet Johnson and have a wide-ranging discussion about his parents’ political problems, why he wasn’t out on the streets of Beijing on the night of June 3, and how June 4 led him to Buddhism.

• Tom Phillips, Shanghai correspondent for the Telegraph, recounts the heart-breaking story of Wu Guofeng, a 20-year-old student from Sichuan who had defied the odds and gained admission to People’s University, despite his poor background. Phillips interviews Wu’s parents, who are outspoken in their desire for justice for their son. Wu’s father also speaks out in the documentary film Portraits of Loss and the Quest for Justice, which I saw this afternoon at a screening co-sponsored by the University of Hong Kong and the Human Rights in China NGO.

• At the Anthill, David Moser shares a wonderful essay, “It Was 1989,” that describes what it was like to be at Beijing University in the months before the protests began:

… the economic reforms of the past decade had handed the students new possibilities. You could get rich, you could get liberated, or you could get out. It was probably no coincidence that the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude was captivating the young intelligentsia of the time. There was a sense that the old order had become miraculously suspended in mid-air, awaiting a presto of transformation.

… and the autumn after the crackdown:

[Moser and some Chinese students] retreated to a familiar hangout, the first KFC restaurant in China, near Qianmen to the south of the square. My Chinese friends and I had gone there shortly after it first opened in 1987 – they were attracted to its foreign exoticism, and I wanted to experience the kitschy fascination of a Western chain in China. Now they sat there glumly for hours, conducting a verbal autopsy on the student movement, and asked me how they might get out of the country. One of them said he felt safer there, as if the American fast food restaurant might have some kind of extraterritoriality privilege. The police dragnets were slow and not computerised, and the main student leaders had mostly escaped, but there were plenty of people left behind, and they were plenty scared.

• Last, but by no means least, read Chinese novelist Ma Jian’s tour de force essay from Sunday’s Guardian:

My most vivid memory of the Tiananmen days is the time I stood high on the Monument to the People’s Heroes one afternoon in late May and looked down on a crowd of more than a million people assembled in the square. Every face beamed with hope and joy. The colourful swathe of humanity looked as peaceful as a meadow of wildflowers. There was a euphoric sense that after decades of tyranny, the Chinese people had found the courage to take full control of their lives and attempt to change the fate of their nation. Every person in that crowd was later a victim of the massacre, whether they lost their life on 4 June or survived, their ideals shattered and their soul scarred by fear.

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