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.
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…