June 4th reflections

To commemorate June 4th, we asked our contributors to reflect on what June 4th, 1989 means to them, and here is what they came back to us with.

SHOW Ying-Xin (Postdoctoral Fellow at School of Culture, History and Language, Australian National University)

When it happened on June 4th, 1989, I was not even one year old. Growing up in a small town in Malaysia, I learned about what happened in Beijing, Germany and Eastern Europe in the year 1989 relatively late, mostly through works of literature and cinema.

In the same year, the Malayan Communist Party laid down their arms after four decades of guerrilla war against the colonizers and then the postcolonial government — a defining moment that officially archived socialism into a matter of history, no longer one of politics. Also in 1989, my grandparents died in their 70s, only five days apart. They were among the first generation of Chinese immigrants who embarked on ships to Malaya from southern China in the early 20th century, working on plantations in the British colony. Their passing, for me, insinuates an effective departure from the distant “homeland,” a place I’d had never been until the age of 20.

Throughout the years, my reading of Chinese history and literature from the diasporic “outside” formed a multifarious picture of this “homeland,” though also an increasingly obscure one. This was especially so when I first stood in front of Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace. While I imagined the sublimity of all the revolutionary moments taking place at this square during the turbulent last century, I also felt infinitely enclosed by the security gates and barriers, the constant stare of Chairman Mao, and the Chineseness embedded in me.

Of course, my grandparents had never been to Tiananmen, nor had my parents. How do I translate this episode of encounter to them? How do I describe to them my wishful and ridiculous reverie on that day, that I imagined people around me would suddenly gather, bringing out their hidden placards and posters and singing along like the students in 1989?

Historian Jonathan Spence’s aphorism still strikes me today – “there was not the faintest reason to believe, despite the Chinese government’s intellectual and political repressions, that the protests of 1989 would be the last.”

Rui ZHONG (Program Associate for the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center)

There is no linkage of Tiananmen to America despite the desperate struggles for truth and against the violence of law enforcement that runs through the joints and vessels of Beijing and Washington. Hong Kong’s research institutions and bookshops, some which have shuttered, are threatened with restrictions if they don’t comply with Beijing’s laws. Underneath their helmets and umbrellas, protestors in Hong Kong fear the future even as they push on with their beliefs in hand. They have remembered, and they have learned from the bones of Tiananmen.

In 1990, Donald Trump told Playboy magazine: “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength.” Blunt as this observation was, it showed an intent to view China’s actions as strength. And yet, to China’s watchers and workers, Tiananmen is continually placed in glass and exhibited, with its living lessons left to gather dust.

In the thirty-first year since the Tiananmen demonstrations, children pour water into their eyes and tend to their wounds each day, inflicted by police and the military that demand acquiescence. Black Americans, restless from the thousand cuts of racism systemic and personal, demand recognition that their lives that matter. But I see them singing, dancing and asking the nigh impossible from their leaders, and I think back to the young people in a Beijing square doing the same many decades ago. These lives, paved with difficulty and facing the might of a military, deserve better than the infamous fate of Beijing’s children taken down decades ago.

Jon (Yuan) JIANG (PhD student at Digital Media Research Centre, Queensland University of Technology)

June 4th may be a tragedy. However, after 30 years, I couldn’t stop but ask was China ready for democracy during that time? Sadly, as the Chinese were not conditioned to accept democracy, I think China might have been again trapped in a Warlord Era if it had of been introduced in 1989. My own experience in Russia, a country that was rapidly ‘democratized’ at the end of the 20th Century, informs my observations that a significant percentage of the Russian public yearn for a return to the old Soviet days.

I also question that if one day China voluntarily or forcibly commences a process of democratization, will the West, especially the US, genuinely help China? As Alexander Lukin wrote, “it is worth recalling here that the privatization program—that led to an enormous economic downturn in the GDP, a significant decline in the overall standard of living and to what leading U.S. expert on the Russian economy James Millar in 1996 called ‘a de facto fraud’—was carried out with the help of money from the U.S. government”. I believe that Beijing and the controlling elites are well-aware of the Russian lesson and will not let it happen again.

Even if China were to become ‘fully democratized’, is this scenario really in the best interests of the West? Kishore Mahbubani cautioned, “be careful what you wish for…if China had democracy today, it would generate a stronger Chinese nationalism”. “The CCP has contained a nationalist and assertive China”. My own observation is that the younger generation of Chinese have become more nationalistic despite a significant number of them having received a Western education.

In the end, as Michael Bond said, “the Chinese have often felt beleaguered and vulnerable to the vicissitudes of famine and political change, and to the whims of authority.” What the majority of Chinese really want might require more consideration.

Adam NI (Editor, the China Story blog)

I was in kindergarten in Shanghai in the summer of 1989. While I can’t personally recall it, my aunts maintain that I got into trouble that year. Apparently, during that fateful summer, I gathered the other kids together and lectured them on the unfolding national drama, solemnly declaring that “a great change is afoot”. 

Why I was compelled to speak was anyone’s guess. Perhaps, despite not understanding the politics, I was still caught up in the moment like hundreds of millions of others around the country; perhaps, deep down I sensed the gravity of what was unfolding, both for China as well as for myself. In any case, my indiscretions were considered so serious that my teacher called in my parents and warned them that “everyone” would be in trouble if I didn’t shut up.

You see, my aunts like to remind me of this episode as proof that rebelliousness is in my bones. For years and years after my mum left China for Australia, my family would tell me that she left because of my misbehaviour. They said she would return once I became “good”. I believed them then, and it still hurts now almost two decades after she passed away.

The other day I asked my dad about the kindergarten episode. “It may or may not have happened – I don’t really remember,” he said. But what he did remember was the euphoria, hope, and recklessness of that summer.

Yun JIANG (Editor, the China Story blog)

My earliest memory is of June 4th. But that’s not possible, because I was only one year old at that time. Yet, repeated telling of what happened on June 4th 1989 has led to the crystallisation of the story as my own memory.

Despite (or because of?) coming from a “red” family (my grandfather was a rear-admiral-equivalent in the People’s Liberation Army Navy and almost all family members were in the PLA and/or Chinese Communist Party), my father was very sympathetic to the student movement.

This is the story he told me: on the day of June 4th 1989, Shanghai was in the midst of a general strike supporting student protestors in Beijing. My mother, an obstetrician, still went to work at the hospital. But he couldn’t get to his work at Baosteel, because of road closures. So he took me on a bike to Lu Xun Park (then Hongkou Park) to read the “big-character posters”.

Of course, knowing about June 4th while in China meant that I never experienced the “revelation”  and “discovering of the truth” about Tiananmen when I moved to Australia (although I’ve never seen the photo of the iconic tank man). But I tried to read as much about Tiananmen as I could. It was my first love for Chinese modern history, a love which then extended to all modern Chinese history.

But in history, there was no clear good vs evil or clear moral lessons like in the Chinese textbooks that I grew up with. I thought the soldiers were “bad”, but then learned of how they were kept in the dark, and some even refused to obey commands. I thought it was all about democracy but then learned that many of the demands were against economic reforms (which, from the West’s perceptive, is something “good” and should be encouraged in China). Was Zhao Ziyang the good guy and Li Peng the bad guy?

The Communist Party requires an official verdict on history. My father is still holding out the hope that the Tiananmen protestors would be “rehabilitated”, like many victims in the Cultural Revolution were. I hope so too, but I don’t think it will happen in his lifetime.