Forgetting Tank Man Costs China Dearly


Last night two friends and I were turned back as we tried to get into Tiananmen Square. The authorities had closed the square to the public, leaving a vast empty space in the heart of the capital, surrounded by uniformed and plain-clothed security personnel of every description.

Like many Australians roughly my age, my first distinct memories of China are images of blood-soaked civilians rushing along Beijing’s darkened streets as distressed television journalists describe the slaughter taking place around them. And then, a day or two later, came one of modern history’s most indelible images: a lone man armed only with plastic shopping bags defiantly staring down a line of tanks on a deserted Beijing avenue.

My 16-year-old self had no idea that I would one day come to know those Beijing streets well. Nearly two decades later, in April 2007, I walked down Chang’an Avenue for the first time and watched the traffic flow over the spot where "Tank Man" once stood. I pointed out the site and explained its significance to a young woman who would later become my wife.

It took a lot of explaining. Even though my wife was born and raised in China, she was only eight when the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations were bloodily suppressed in Beijing on the night of 3-4 June. She had never seen the pictures and no-one had ever told her what happened. All she remembers are whispers about one local man from her hometown in west China, who was in Beijing in June 1989 and mysteriously never returned.

When my wife learned something of the truth about the events that unfolded in and around Tiananmen Square 20 years ago, she asked her mother if she knew that hundreds, possibly thousands of Chinese civilians had been gunned down in the street by the People’s Liberation Army. "That’s not true," her mother replied quickly, "nobody was killed" — and refused to discuss the matter further.

Even some youngsters who were in Beijing in 1989 have no memory of the massacre that took place in their city. One of my good friends grew up in Qianmen, literally a stone’s throw from Tiananmen Square. She, like my wife, was eight in 1989, but recalls nothing of the protests or the subsequent crackdown, despite the fact she later learned her mother was among those demonstrating on the Square.

I’ve lived in China for two years now, and have never encountered a country so obsessed with history, while at the same time being so completely in denial about its recent past. Many young graduates I’ve met can reel off the names of emperors stretching back over millennia, and will proudly tell you their civilisation has a history of 5000 years. Yet they have very little knowledge of what happened in their country between 1949 and the turn of this decade. From the Anti-Rightist Movement of the late 1950s to the details of the Cultural Revolution, from China’s invasion of Vietnam in 1979 to the events of 4 June 1989, many young Chinese people’s knowledge of contemporary history is punctuated by huge, gaping holes.

At times it feels like the China we read about in Western history books, that is recalled in the memoirs of Chinese people living outside the PRC, the China that we saw on television in 1989 — existed in some parallel universe. It seems impossible that a country of 1.3 billion people could be made to forget so successfully. Then an older man you are drinking with begins recalling his time as a Red Guard, or you find out people were beaten to death in your place of work in the late 1960s, or you interview a protester who saw the army march onto Tiananmen Square, and you realise it is all true — the history and the amnesia.

In this sense, the legacy of 4 June is both everywhere and nowhere in contemporary China. Nowhere in that it is the great unmentionable trauma at the heart of the so-called "reform period" that commenced in 1978. Everywhere because it set in stone the kind of nation the "reformist" leader Deng Xiaoping was to bequeath to the 21st century.

Above all Deng was a nationalist who longed to see China become a powerful player on the world stage. But like all ardent nationalists, Deng idealised his country in the abstract while despising the messy reality of its actual people. Starting with his time as a most enthusiastic persecutor for Mao during the Anti-Rightist Movement, Deng proved himself quite willing to repress, imprison and ultimately murder by the hundreds, if not by the thousands, the people he claimed to love.

It is Deng’s nationalism and vision that live on in today’s PRC — a consumerist society with a vast gap between the rich and poor, in which critical thought and historical enquiry are rigorously suppressed, presided over by a corrupt oligarchy who have made sure they have benefited most from China’s conversion into the world’s factory. As the former Tiananmen protester and current Beijing bookstore proprietor Liu Suli put it when I interviewed him a few days ago, "What’s the meaning of China’s so-called economic success? It’s just converted 1.3 billion people into an animal — a beast."

This, it seems, is the legacy of 4 June. It’s a legacy I see in my young colleagues when they calmly explain to me that peasants who travel to Beijing to petition the Government with trifling problems like kidnapped children need to be locked up in unofficial detention centres and beaten by police, because "they cause trouble for officials".

It’s a legacy I see in the words of the doctors who, at a party recently, informed my wife that an operation she endured last year under local anaesthetic was particularly painful because we neglected to bribe the anaesthetist to ensure he administered the full dose of anaesthetic.

It’s a legacy I see in the downcast eyes of another doctor who, when I asked if it was true that organs are forcibly harvested from executed prisoners in China, replied, "Of course, and everyone in the medical profession knows it".

It’s a legacy I hear in the story of a Shanghai family I interviewed several months ago whose entire neighbourhood had been terrorised by migrant workers in the pay of developers working hand-in-glove with local police. Their homes were smashed up, their possessions stolen, and one neighbour was beaten so badly he was hospitalised. Finally the family acquiesced and moved to a faraway suburb so their neighbourhood could be flattened and the developer grow rich building high-rise apartments around the Shanghai Expo site.

And it’s a legacy I see in China’s so-called "patriotic youth" who, if they read this article, will angrily deny everything I have said — even though they have seen and heard many similar stories — and say I am trying to make their country look bad because I am scared of a powerful China.

But finally, it’s a legacy I also see in the small numbers of Chinese who speak out against the brutality of the regime, who keep the memory of 4 June alive despite blacklisting, harassment and imprisonment, who are ignored and forsaken by the vast majority of their compatriots.

It’s the legacy of 4 June inside China that makes the memorialisation of the event in the outside world so important. But remembering 4 June is not just about China. Every government on the planet needs to be constantly reminded that slaughtering civilians, repressing your own people, and entrenching minority rule, can never, ever be justified.

This is why the annual vigil in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, and projects like the Tank Man Tango — initiated by Australian Deborah Kelly this year to mark the massacre’s 20th anniversary — are so important. Political leaders of all stripes need to know that when they attempt to rewrite history, to erase their crimes, to make people forget, there will always be someone, somewhere who will remember and say, "This was wrong".

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