I Think You Forgot to Mention Tiananmen…

I have always considered it rather unfortunate that the one part of Chinese history most Americans know something about — the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 — happens to be a part that many Chinese know little about. Granted, American knowledge doesn’t tend run very deep, people just know that students were killed, and they recognize the famous “tank man” image. Many of them might call this one of the most iconic “China” images. It’s a pity, then, that most Chinese people have never seen it.

Tiananmen 1989 was, undoubtedly, an important historic event with far-reaching implications. Furthermore, the fact that most Chinese people don’t know what happened there — the fact that there’s no open discussion about what happened there — is a shame. With that said, there’s probably no event in all of Chinese history more overplayed in the Western media, and with the twentieth anniversary right around the corner, people are really ramping things up.

Recently, The Australian ran a piece about some student protests in Nanjing. These protests were the direct result of police abuse of several student vendors who were being forcibly removed from campus grounds. They had nothing to do with democracy, Hu Yaobang, or any kind of dissatisfaction with the central government; all they share in common with the Tiananmen Square protests of ’89 is that both incidents occurred in China and involved students. But is there a connection? See if you can figure out what The Australian writer Michael Sainsbury thinks:

Students protest in lead-up to June 4 Tiananmen anniversary.

FACED with the unexpected prospect of unemployment, China’s students are again getting restless in the lead-up to the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Thousands of students are reported to have protested in the streets of Nanjing, in central eastern China – one of the centres of protests in 1989 – following an incident on Monday night in which government security guards enforcing restrictions on peddlers allegedly attacked classmates who had set up footpath stalls.

A bloody clash between thousands of students and riot police reportedly ensued, continuing into Tuesday morning. At least 30 students were injured, and a police car was smashed.

While generally apolitical in nature, such incidents spark deep unease among authorities fearful of a recurrence of campus activism that grew into the massive nationwide 1989 protests, which remain a forbidden topic in official discourse.

Many see the still-nascent student unrest as a result of sharply climbing unemployment for graduates. It is believed half of last year’s six million graduates have not found jobs, a situation likely to be repeated this year, given the global recession. The state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has said the overall number of jobseekers is expected to grow to 48 million this year.

The Chinese Government has been keen to lift the sagging economy with the help of an $800 billion spending plan to halt rising social unrest.

The protests this week come two weeks before the 20th anniversary on June 4 of the bloody suppression of student-led, pro-democracy protests centred on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Security forces are on high alert.

Subtle.

What’s especially ridiculous is that it ran on the same day as this NYT piece about how Tiananmen 1989 “seems distant” to Chinese students:

And if a student today proposed a pro-democracy protest?

“People would think he was insane,” said one Peking University history major in a recent interview. “You know where the line is drawn. You can think, maybe talk, think about the events of 1989. You just cannot do something that will have any public influence. Everybody knows that.”

Most students also appear to accept it. For 20 years, China’s government has made it abundantly clear that students and professors should stick to the books and stay out of the streets. Students today describe 1989 as almost a historical blip, a moment too extreme and traumatic ever to repeat.

So why did The Austrialian insist on peppering their story with a hearty dose of Tiananmen when it wasn’t necessary (the China Digital Times was able to report the same story without resorting to such misleading comparisons)? Well, Tiananmen attracts readers because it’s something they know, or think they know. It’s exciting, violent, and lets most Westerners bask in a glow of superiority, shaking their heads as they read and wondering when the Chinese people will “wake up” and overthrown the brutal CCP.

From the perspective of someone trying to sell newspapers, it makes sense. If I were a moneygrubbing editor, I’d be sure a reference to Tiananmen worked its way into every China headline between now and June 4th, but even then, I’d be doing it with a heavy heart. This kind of story does no one any good.

Because the fact is, what those students in Nanjing were protesting, that’s a real problem. The way reports of the protest are being censored is a real problem. These are the issues that Chinese people care about now, but The Austrialian is running them over with a steamroller, shouting about Tiananmen instead. Aside from selling newspapers, what’s the point?

Before I get accused of being an apologist, let me reiterate that I do think Tiananmen 1989 was extremely important. The problem is, this kind of reporting does a disservice to everyone. It does a disservice to the cause of the students now and the cause of the students in 1989 by lumping them roughly together when they are two very different things occurring at two very different times. Furthermore, it reinforces the idea that every political event and protest in China is somehow connected directly to the Tiananmen Square Protests.

With 5,000 years of history, you’d think that occasionally, someone might find a different parallel to draw on, or even just report the issue alone and trust their readers to figure things out without directly tying it to the one thing they have heard of that happened in China before. You would think that. Here’s hoping…

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0 thoughts on “I Think You Forgot to Mention Tiananmen…”

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report
  2. Oh dear heavens. Oh dear heavens.

    I think Custer is the only expat blogger in China who’s are seeing through this (I’m not being sarcastic). I could be wrong, but I’m sticking to my story.

    I came here first to comment on the blog about racism in China. But I really did find Custer standing out among all the expat bloggers. I don’t want to drive a wedge between him and his compatriots, but most of them suck compared to him and his understanding of what the Chinese people (not the gov) think.

    I don’t agree with him all the time, but I think more and more people will come here because of his intelligent analysis. I bet my money on Kris Allen the first time I saw him and he won. 🙂 So, trust me.

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  3. Oi, just Googled Nanjing and Tiananmen then somehow ended up on this blog!
    Well, I just hope those poor Japanese students are not run over by Chinese communist tanks!

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  4. I agree, too much over-simplified/generalized crap linking the same old events to anything that happens in China. Given how disconnected students in China tend to be from anything political (besides gaining party membership for future job opportunities), the Nanjing story is more than big enough on its own. Lazy, uninformed, sensationalist journalists and editors should not be taken seriously.

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  5. 100% agree. Western media/readers fall into the trap of seeing everything with preexisting ideas and then fitting events and new data into those preexisting ideas. I’m sure that is true for everyone in the world, including Chinese.

    I love your lead sentence: “I have always considered it rather unfortunate that the one part of Chinese history most Americans know something about — the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 — happens to be a part that many Chinese know little about.” Wow, that just about sums it all up.

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  6. ““People would think he was insane,” said one Peking University history major in a recent interview. “You know where the line is drawn. You can think, maybe talk, think about the events of 1989.”

    Yeah problem with this is that any undergrad in a Chinese University today wasn’t even born when 6/4 happened…hardly they’d have any personal experience or recollection…it was sort of like when I grew up in the 80s in N. America and everyone a generation older than me “remembered where they were when Kennedy was shot”….and I was like ” yeah, I dont see how this relates to me and dont give a fuck”

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  7. If the chinese youth’s memory is that short, how come there are thousands of Chinese ready to burn french flags, japanese falgs and bitch about western colonial humiliation, everytime an opportunity arises?

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  8. @yak
    Because the government reminds them from an early age that it’s patriotic to hate the former members of the eight nation alliance.

    Journalist sensationalism is something that’s really not new and I’ve had a few talks about it with my students lately to try to convince them to read news in English. My example was the swine flu and why America isn’t moving to control it very effectively: why should they care? America has the most cases in the world, but only 10 deaths. After all, 10 deaths are the result of a day of crime in any 3 major American cities in a given day. They asked me why everyone was so scared then, and the logical answer was the media.

    But, for some reason, although those people may absorb what I said for the time being, the next time someone writes something bad about China, those same people will be out protesting Carrefour and KFC. Because those people will never understand that for the big scary “western media,” it’s not personal. It’s just business.

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  9. “I have always considered it rather unfortunate that the one part of Chinese history most Americans know something about — the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 — happens to be a part that many Chinese know little about.”

    Then you have a choice: ‘re-educate’ Americans according to the CCP handbook or educate Chinese. Personally, on humanitarian grounds at least, I’d opt for the latter.

    “there’s probably no event in all of Chinese history more overplayed in the Western media”

    Overplayed? That smacks of Zhongnanhai-esque sensitivity. Do they really overplay it? Or does it just seem that way to the Chinese?

    Pray tell; which event/year in Chinese history would you rather replaced ’89 as the object of western media attention? Why? Please don’t nominate ‘serf’s emancipation day.’

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  10. @ Stuart: Call me crazy, but I would submit that we might include all years when discussing historical context, rather than focusing on just one all the time.

    I have no problem with comparing things to Tiananmen ’89 when such comparisons are relevant. But explain to me how the protests this article are reporting on are related to Tiananmen, aside from that they involved students and occurred in China. There is no connection. Making one up just serves to sensationalize both past and present, which is good for no one (except newspaper salesmen).

    What happened in the Square on June 4th was terrible, but it’s also over. The West needs to engage with the China that exists right now, and if every time Chinese students protest something the Western media compares it to Tiananmen, well, then that’s evidence that we’re failing.

    And from a historical perspective, it’s important that the protests in Tiananmen be remembered for what they actually were, and not connected and compared to any and every vaguely anti-government activity that happened in China between 1989 and now.

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  11. @ C Custer
    “Call me crazy”

    I just read your interview with Kai and your sanity seems to be pretty much in check.

    “I would submit that we might include all years when discussing historical context”

    Well, yes, but I was responding to your view that the west ‘overplays’ a particular point in modern Chinese history. Nor can equal importance be attributed to all years in the historical record.

    “What happened in the Square on June 4th was terrible, but it’s also over.”

    It was, and it is. So too 9/11, the Holocaust, and the Nanking massacre. All discussed, debated, remembered, and appropriately wreathed every year.

    “The West needs to engage with the China that exists right now

    Engaging with China means dealing with the CCP leadership. These are the very same people who perpetrated a tragedy that has been effectively airbrushed from history. Therefore engaging with the China that exists ‘right now’ means pressing them on responsible governance as much as it means acknowledging their place at the big boys table.

    “it’s important that the protests in Tiananmen be remembered for what they actually were

    Exactly. But that can’t happen without closure; and that can’t happen without open discourse.

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  12. Excellent post, Custer. The links the Australian article attempts to forge are preposterous.

    I’m not sure I agree about TAM being overplayed in the Western media. First of all, coverage of the event has drastically slowed down in recent years, though it will naturally spike this year with the anniversary and the psychological impact it carries. Second, you have to remember, TAM was in effect the world’s first detailed, vivid look at the PRC. This is all many of us saw of China, and it was to be years before the doors were opened again. The Olympics were actually the next big lifting of the curtain. TAM was the ultimate defining moment for China, and considering how earth-shattering it was, for months holding the entire world spellbound it would be quite strange if it weren’t so much in the media, especially since China never opened up about what happened.

    The only equivalent in modern memory is 911, and every year for many years to come that, too, will be the focus of intense media attention. How could it not? How could TAM not? These were seismic events, cataclysmic, they altered our perceptions of entire nations and changed our outlooks forever. So don’t be surprised and get set for more to come. And finally, don’t forget: much of the media uproar is a direct result of China’s refusing to release the records, leading to ongoing rumors and misconceptions and endless speculation. Letting it all out would create a new peak of attention, but then it would simmer down as rumors were laid to rest and old questions answers. That day will come, and then we might see TAM demystified and less an event of perpetual curiosity and wonder.

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  13. The problem with Western Media want to over-sensationalize about the events of 6/4 and the iconic image of tank man but don’t want to mention the events leading up to that day in the first place. The Chinese would mostly learn the unrest within China the few months leading to 6/4 but 6/4 and tank man has no historical significance to it. The Chinese government knows about the reasons for the unrest in 1989 and doesn’t want to repeat it so they urged many students to work in the rural areas. The tank man means nothing in Chinese history. Did he stopped from more Chinese getting killed? Did he stopped tanks from rolling around Tianamen square? Did he contribute anything constructive into Chinese society?

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  14. @ Stuart: I think you’re exactly right to say that engaging with China means dealing with the CCP leadership, and that they need to be held accountable for their actions. That’s precisely why I find this single-minded Tiananmen focus so annoying. My opinion on this may change when I finish reading Prisoner of the State (I’ve barely started the forward), but as of now my understanding is that ultimately the decision to send in the military was made by Deng Xiaoping, who is now dead.

    China’s current generation of leadership isn’t going to respond well to being held accountable for something most of them were too junior to really affect at the time it happened. Moreover, there are plenty of more recent events to hold them accountable for, events that, at this point, are much more important to Chinese people than Tiananmen 1989 (for example, there’s the matter of student deaths in the Beichuan earthquake and Ai Weiwei’s project we’ve been reporting on so much here at this site).

    I agree open discourse on Tiananmen is the only way to come to closure, but again, I’d submit that this kind of journalism actually makes that kind of discourse more difficult. It misleads Westerners (and Chinese who might read it) into thinking Tiananmen connects to things it does not, and it certainly is not likely to compel any higher authorities to open up about anything. It teaches us nothing about Tiananmen ’89, rather, it drives us further from the truth.

    On the subject of helping lead to an open discourse, though, I hope I’ll have something interesting to say when I finish reading Prisoner of the State.

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  15. Custer is spot on; the link to Tiananmen is forced, fragile, and finally untenable but, yes, the Western press in general finds that event – rather far removed from most mainland Chinese under 30 I’ll bet – a convenient bloody flag.

    The true shame is not Tiananmen or any of the month-day events that riddle the Chinese calendar. The true shame is the Chinese interpretation of Chinese history which has almost always been edited, corrupted, perverted and politicized by subsequent regimes to serve their present. Sima Qian incurred castration for a singular exception, The Book of History, which remains appeciated as a masterpiece. It seems a second, updated edition covering the subsequent 2000 years of Chinese history is long overdue, but I don’t see it coming from this lot.

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  16. @ pug_ster

    The tank man means nothing in Chinese history.

    You need to be asking yourself ‘why?’. Lei Feng seems to get plenty of coverage every year in China on the other hand. Go figure.

    my understanding is that ultimately the decision to send in the military was made by Deng Xiaoping, who is now dead.

    The fact that the same hardliners are pulling the strings is evidenced by the continuing denial and silence. If not, why not be open about the issue? The non-Chinese medias perceived preoccupation with 6/4 results from the imbalance of coverage compared to Chinese media, and uncertainty about a global power led by a handful of technocrats that lack the moral backbone to raise their hands and say, “we apologise for the mistakes of ’89; it really didn’t have to end that way.”

    Richard’s right. The coverage isn’t always going to win journalistic merit awards, but you can expect, justifiably, plenty more pieces about 6/4 as the anniversary approaches. And who else is going to remember? Hu Jintao and the boys? It really is a shocking state of affairs when a government systematically erases a huge two-decade-old event from the historical record. And what do we get to fill in the blank pages? Serfs’ emanicipation day.

    @ Scott
    The true shame is the Chinese interpretation of Chinese history which has almost always been edited, corrupted, perverted and politicized by subsequent regimes to serve their present.

    Precisely. And they get their hair all messed up when overseas journalists (not always very professionally) do the job for them.

    Mainland Chinese really have no idea of the debt they owe to the people of Hong Kong for keeping the memory alive every year. It’s Chinese history, damn it; and that needs preserving, warts and all.

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  17. It’s often asked (e.g. Yak in comment #7) why it is that while Chinese people seem to have a conveniently short or selective memory when it comes to certain horrific historical episodes–TAM, the GPCR–they have a long, vivid historical memory for that litany of humiliations at the hands of various foreign powers. Fair question. I’ve always thought one part of the answer is too often ignored. Sure, as people raising this question implicitly conclude, “Patriotic Education” and other forms of CCP propaganda have made a concerted effort to expunge certain episodes from memory and to burn others into it more deeply, and these certainly have something to do with it. But clearly there’s also a willingness on the part of many people to acquiesce in this mass amnesia. The “brainwashing/big lie” explanation strikes me as patronizing, and overstates the ability of the Party propaganda machine to really control the narrative. To judge from the raft of “distant memory” stories that run in the global media in the month or so before every anniversary of TAM, and to judge from the paucity (relative to the number who suffered) of Cultural Revolution memoirs and other acts of remembrance, I think we can safely assume that many Chinese have a will to forget.

    Why? Because people who were persecuted, tortured, and saw their families destroyed and lives ruined in the Cultural Revolution had to go on living in the same communities–in the same compounds, in the same villages, on the same alleys–as the very people who inflicted all that abuse on them. It’s not that strange to me that many would simply choose to sublimate that pain and try to forget, in the interest of rebuilding and moving on. Astonishingly, it even seems to be happening in Rwanda: see Phillip Goerevitch’s recent New Yorker article. Participants in 1989–students, intellectuals, workers, ordinary Beijingers–were witness to a paroxysm of violence on a scale few had ever experienced, again inflicted by their countrymen, by soldiers acting on orders of their own government. As the smoke cleared and it was clear who was in charge, it’s no surprise to me that only a tiny minority of courageous individuals wouldn’t just fold, make a pragmatic compromise, and simply try to get on with things.

    Richard is right about why TAM still looms so large in the rest of the world’s consciousness, and I agree that “letting it out” would, in the long run, do a huge amount of good. But the pressure to do so should be internally generated. We have to accept that many Chinese see western pressure for a reckoning about TAM as simply an effort to destabilize a rising power.

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  18. I would argue that the two final references to Tiananmen are relevant, while the ones at the beginning of the article are not. While this particular incident is completely unconnected to ’89, and therefore the first two references are indeed a bit ridiculous and forced, the government is extremely weary of student protests in general, and that background info should arguably be included.

    Besides some Western journalists, it’s a safe bet that the only group of people who see student protests in more political ’89-like terms is the government itself, who is fully determined to diffuse and abort any such protests in their embryonic stages.

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  19. Sure the Chinese have a will to forget, but instead forget by choice, a choice that is far removed from the practical necessity of getting along and living side by side with their own kind and creed who have inflicted abuse and worse, a choice far beyond the willingness to “subliminate (the) pain”.

    The Chinese conveniently forget their own transgressions and depradations against themselves or others, historical and contemporary, even while cranking up hysteria about something as minor as, for example, perceived slights by foreigners. Why? A lack of introspection? Perhaps. Lack of free public discourse and an open, investigative press? Maybe. Failure of a Chinese academia answerable only to academic standards of research and verification? For sure, but I think – and I invite correction – a deeper explanation is the Chinese’ seeming inability to be shamed by their own hypocrisy. Note I do not single out mainland Chinese only, nor do I think this inability peculiar to Chinese alone.

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  20. @ ScottLoar –
    You’re right, it’s not an inability peculiar to Chinese alone, and the ability to really introspect, to face ugly truths or even to countenance a press that fearlessly presents those truths to a nation, and to brush off those perceived slights rather than acting (in the memorable phrase of Hung Huang) “like beaten teenagers” is, to the best of my knowledge, exceedingly rare among nation-states. I’m inclined to think that a polity needs to build up the callouses of confidence, and the only way to do that is to expose that thin skin to adversity. Chinese society (like so many others lacking a free press) hides its tender skin from the bracing elements that it needs to toughen it up. While I think that’s ultimately to China’s detriment, I can also see it from the present Chinese perspective, too: it’s blowing mighty ferociously out there, and there are an awful lot of people both within the country and abroad who have sand blasters trained on China’s face. China might be in for more than just some therapeutic toughening-up. It might have the skin torn right off. There are, of course, people who think that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. I’m not sure I’m one of them.

    I do take some comfort in seeing, in the emerging public sphere of the Internet, a lot more diversity of viewpoints when talking about traditionally sensitive topics, and an increased tolerance for criticism. Granted, this is more conspicuous in conversations taking place entirely in Chinese; there’s still that irksome tendency of so many Chinese when engaging with foreigners to circle the wagons and maintain a facade of patriotic unity. It’s one of the great things about the U.S. that, for all intents and purposes, none of the shameful chapters are off limits. But the American political culture I’m so fond of is, I truly believe, the outcome of a long historical process that owes as much to happy accident as to will and vision.

    Your earlier comment about the uses and abuses to which history has been put in China ring true to me; my paternal grandfather, Kuo Ting-yee, who headed the Academia Sinica’s Modern History Bureau, avoided Sima Qian’s fate but still had his books banned both in the PRC and Taiwan until years after his death in 1976. He had always told my once-idealistic father (who enthused about the “New China” briefly after the Nixon opening) that people simply don’t change overnight, and that disaster can befall a people when that truth is ignored. I think the same can be said for China today.

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  21. Kaiser, your comments are most insightful and I do agree entirely. I’m sorry to hear about your grandfather but, having lived on both sides of the straits under the old line KMT in Taiwan and now the modern PRC, I’m not surprised. The studied ignorance on both sides – from which Taiwan has only most recently escaped but for how long? – is telling and gives no grim delight to most insiders or outsiders alike.

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  22. The true shame is the Chinese interpretation of Chinese history which has almost always been edited, corrupted, perverted and politicized by subsequent regimes to serve their present. Sima Qian incurred castration for a singular exception, The Book of History, which remains appeciated as a masterpiece. It seems a second, updated edition covering the subsequent 2000 years of Chinese history is long overdue, but I don’t see it coming from this lot.

    I disagree with such take. Dynastic history in China typically was done in a subsequent dynasty when the vested interest of rewriting the history no longer existed. It was often a huge undertaking involved countless man-hours that could last more than a decade. Source material included both the official records of the past dynasty, and more importantly whatever private records that could be collected. Most of those historians held Sima Qian as their standard bearer, and it had to be subject to the highest quality. For example, the History of Tang was first written in Late Jin (晋) a few decades after the end of Tang. But due to the war, it was done in a relative hurry (9 authors, 200 chapters and 4+ years). In Song it was totally redone again just to make sure the quality.

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  23. @JXie, look again mate, why would the Yuan, in their dynastic history of the Song, give an unbiased and objective history? Why would the Ming give one of the Yuan, and so on, and so forth. Those histories are about as “objective” as the “Global Times” Chinese edition.

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  24. @Zuo ai, totally 想当然.

    First have you read the History of Song, or the History of Yuan? In what specific aspects do you object to, as far it being biased or otherwise? Comparing the histories with “Global Times” is pretty retarded, if you don’t mind me being brutally honest. It’s not much difference with comparing say New York Times to scholarly paperwork done by some history professors.

    Sure historians are fallible human beings, even the best ones. But they often held themselves by the standard set by Sima Qian. For instance, read up the History of Ming in the part depicting its dealing with Qing’s founding emperor 努尔哈赤, and tell me how biased that is.

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