The Australian Centre on China in the World is marking this day, one that some writers call ’35th May’, by screening the 1995 documentary film The Gate of Heavenly Peace. Produced by the Boston-based Long Bow Group, the film has enjoyed critical acclaim, and a measure of controversy, since its debut at the New York Film Festival. Like the film itself, the accompanying website TSquare is still widely used for teaching contemporary Chinese politics and history.
The international media has reported widely on this day and its abiding significance (and the official occlusion of that significance) in China and for the global community. I was invited by Rowan Callick of The Australian to offer my observations on this anniversary, and he quoted some of my remarks in an article published today. My comments in full are as follows:
To this day, the Chinese authorities when confronting major anniversaries of the 1989 Protest Movement organise ritualised persecutions that further victimise the country’s thinking people who nurture the hope to realise an equitable, open and democratic modern society.
In 1989, mass discontent over a broad range of issues was fanned by Party intransigence and factionalism into a national crisis. Many innocent participants in the demonstrations were silenced, and a horrific number (both of protesters and law enforcers) lost their lives during the suppression.
Much erroneous information about this movement is now part of contending mainstream views. The Chinese party-state avers that, following the 15 April 1989 death of the ousted ‘bourgeois liberal’ Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, a sinister coterie of US-inspired plotters inveigled large numbers of protesters in Beijing and dozens of other Chinese cities to agitate for the overthrow of the Communist Party and the People’s Republic itself. Aided and abetted by the incumbent Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang who foolishly believed that the next stage of Chinese reform and opening up should be fostered by greater political, individual and media freedoms, the plotters worked to, as Deng Xiaoping later stated, turn China into a ‘vassaldom of the West’, a slave of international market democracies.
The Chinese party-state declares that the timely intervention of Party elders (and large numbers of PLA troops) prevented this tragedy, even though it required the declaration of martial law in the Chinese capital and the violent suppression of the six-week long protests.
For their part, the still active former protest leaders and their followers claim they were, above all, political naïves calling for the kinds of freedoms long promised by Chinese reformers and revolutionaries. They assert that, on the evening of 3-4 June there was a massacre in Tiananmen Square and that as a result China’s social and political development remains stymied.
Having spent years working on the events of 1989 for the 1995 film The Gate of Heavenly Peace, I have found no particularly compelling evidence that there was a concerted US-inspired plot behind the numerous complaints and protests that marked the 1989 uprising. For that matter, I have seen no solid proof of a massacre in the narrow confines of Tiananmen Square itself (although this has become international orthodoxy). Nonetheless, hundreds if not more innocents were killed in the approaches to the Square that fateful night.
Families and friends still cannot mourn those deaths and even today men and women of conscience, like the ‘3 May Fifteen’, are persecuted solely for daring to remember, reflect on and remind us all of the uprising that took place a quarter of a century ago.