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China Letter-News and Human Rights

China human rights news with focus on the Uygur of Xinjiang, Tibetans and Tibet, Chinese mining workers, religion, corruption and censorship.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Doubts Over Tiananmen: A Myth Being Perpetuated?

Tiananmen Square Massacre"'If you want a great leap forward, you'll get a great leap backward.'"

so says Dai Qing a Tiananmen protestor and now a well known reform activist, seemingly admitting in a Muzi article that perhaps the students overstepped themselves with the 1989 Tiananmen protest that went so tragically wrong. She went on to say:

"Back in those days, Wang Dan ( a student leader now living in self imposed exile) would never choose to do small things. But I don't think that just because it's small, it's not worth doing,"
she said referring to her now more moderate style of activism.

According to the article in Muzi, and reflective of the extremely quiet lead up to this year's 15th anniversary of the student's protest that left hundreds of people dead, most participants have moved on with their lives.

Many are now successful business people or academics enjoying the fruits of China's economic rise as they settle comfortably into middle age and middle class. Some are even pillars of communist society. Even those that attempted to carry on the fight have gradually faded from the message boards and chatrooms of the internet either as a result of work and family pressures or perhaps in the belief that the cause is no longer alive.

I questioned in a recent post just how "real" was the Tiananmen protest in terms of being a universally popular movement in China at the time as it is so often touted.

Much has been made of the "millions" that supposedly were backing the student protest and reports at the time are of hundreds of thousands coming from all over China to join the protest in Tiananmen Square.

Also too the death toll from the intervention of the People's Liberation Army at the order of the Politburo is variously reported as hundreds if not thousands with emphasis on the latter.

But, at the risk of sounding "sacrilegious" to the Human-Rights movement of which I consider myself a member, what really are the facts?

The facts would appear to be that this protest that went so tragically wrong and which supposedly had the strong backing of most of the people of China virtually died alongside those killed.

There were no spontaneous demonstrations, protests or riots widespread across China upon news of the massacre as it would be reasonable to expect in light of such a supposed popular movement. Of course the put down of the Students was ruthless and barbaric and would have scared many but it did make martyrs of many people and martyrs usually inspire some people regardless of the danger, but no, there was not anything of consequence.

Most of the "remembrance" of Tiananmen comes nowadays, and has done so for sometime now, from the west not from within China. A weekend remembrance rally in Hong Kong for example drew a few thousand, most, if it were known, more concerned about their own future rather than Tiananmen.

Where are those millions of fervent supporters gone let alone those thousands who were actually involved in the protest? Apart from a few die hards they have disappeared without a trace.

You may say there is the likes of the "Tiananmen Mothers" several of whom are reportedly under a form of house arrest at the moment in the days leading up to the June 4 anniversary. But these people are not continuing the protest that caused Tiananmen, their raison d'etre is to remember their dead children and gain redress as to their memories not further the cause that lead directly or indirectly in their murder.

Spectators in Tiananmen Square May 1989I say "directly or indirectly" because how many people who died on that fateful day were actually not protestors but just innocent bystanders brought out into the streets of Beijing on those hot days and balmy nights to witness a "spectacle". Stories abound of people who just jumped on their bicycles to take a look and ended up victims. Innocent spectators not brave students maning the barricades and imbued with a burning ideal.

And why is it that despite the constant referral in the western press to possibly thousands dead at the hands of the PLA and police does the Tiananmen Mothers only have the names of 182 dead? (182 too many regardless).

It just does not wash that after 15 years if the casualties were as high as claimed, that "fear" of the authorities still stops what would be many thousands of friends and relatives of these "thousands dead" from coming forward and adding names to this list, even anonymously.

Atop tanks in TiananmenIs what we really witnessed not some great swell of democratic desire on behalf of the Chinese people but primarily a group of young people, with legitimate demands, take an initial brave step to protest in Tiananmen but who, immaturely buoyed by their initial successes, took things further than it should have went?

I was interested and a little shocked in reading a BBC article recently about the recollections of student leader Weur Kaixi who before the massacre was granted a meeting, along with other student leaders, with Chinese Prime Minister and hardliner Li Peng . I was struck by the immaturity of how he recounts they acted. Even now he does not seem to see how such attitudes hardened the Governments resolve against the students.

He first shook hands with all of us. He then sat down and went into a long opening monologue of admonitions. To tell the truth, we immediately felt an uneasy sense of foreboding about the outcome of the meeting - This is not really dialogue and negotiation; certain political decisions have already been made beforehand!

Well, no matter whether decisions have already been made or not, we are representing the students and the pressure groups of the people to talk to the government. If the Prime Minister is adopting such a high-handed and haughty attitude towards us and is trying to put pressure on us this is not going to look good for the people.

Of course, Li Peng first said he was sorry for being late for five minutes. The reason, he said, was traffic congestion. Traffic congestion! Of course, he was implying that the student demonstration had thrown Beijing into such chaos and a state of anarchy. He was actually blaming us.

I quickly exchanged a few words with Wang Dan and decided to interrupt the Prime Minister.

I said to him: 'I am sorry Prime minister Li Peng, I have to interrupt you. You may think that you have been late for only five minutes. May I point out you have actually been late for a month, not five minutes. I am referring to the meeting we wanted for 17 April at Zhongnanhai [where China's top leaders live and work.]

And then on 22 April and in front of the Great Hall of the People we had implored you to come out and talk with us. We had called out aloud to you: 'Li Peng, come out.' We demanded a dialogue with the prime minister. Now, he is finally seeing us on the 18 May . So we are saying you have actually been late for one month.'

And then, he (Li Peng ) went on to tell us what he wanted to talked about.

But I said: 'Today we have invited you to come here and so we should decide what to talk about.'

I think such a firm expression of attitude was useful at the time in helping to create an equal status between the people's movement and the government.

By doing so we were able to create and maintain a certain pressure on the government."

With due respect to Mr Kaixi and his understandable bravado as a young man this was perhaps not the way to speak to a man as Li Ping and the creation and maintenance of "a certain amount of pressure" was an understatement. Other images of the time such as students sitting atop tanks and armed jeeps combined with attitudes such as this should, to a more mature person, have be known would be a red flag to the Communist hardliners inviting not dialogue but confrontation.

Tiananmen Square was an uncalled for massacre perpetrated by a government on it's unarmed civilians involved in non violent dissent. No amount of possible charges of "contributory negligence" on behalf of young hot headed students can excuse the government's response. It is and will remain an indictment of the Communist Party of China. It was heartless and barbaric and showed a regime bereft of morals.

However, that being said, have we in the west read too much into Tiananmen at least as to the depth of national sentiment which supposedly motivated it? Have we been guilty of perpetuating a myth for other reasons? Were those students only a group of self interested young people, albeit with real complaints who, buoyed by initial successes, carried the protest on too far with tragic results and not, as it is portrayed, the true representatives of 1 billion Chinese desperate for democratization?

I am beginning to think that yes we have.

Muzi.com | News : China's Tiananmen victims seek redress 15 years on:

"Witnessing Tiananmen: Students talks fail". BBC1/6/04