Memories of Tiananmen and Questions on the Meaning of Democracy

In Asia, and perhaps in the world, when the beginning of June rolls around, the provocative question always is, “Where were you when the ‘Tiananmen Square Massacre’ took place on June 4th 1989?” If interest is piqued, that is followed by other questions like, “Do you remember the Goddess of Democracy & Liberty Statue or the iconic photo of the tank man?” Even deeper questions will come if the speakers dare to go further and probe the meaning of the event. That meaning may be more salient this year, since it marks the twenty-fifth anniversary and memory of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Wroclaw, Poland: the memorial of 10th anniversary (1999) of Tian'anmen Sq. (Beijing, China) massacre, June 4th, 1989

Memory can be tricky. Some reading this article would not have been born when Tiananmen happened. But if they were, then the question of memory is legitimate. Selective and unpredictable, memory is personal as well as collective. What memories Tiananmen brings especially both to those who are Chinese and those that support democracy gains more prominence this year since the current government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) not only has forbidden discussion of the event, but is also trying to erase it from the nation’s collective memory.

To this day, the number of students and citizens that died in that massacre is uncertain. Figures range from the hundreds to the thousands. Cloaked also in secrecy and forbidden discussion is who if anyone will ever be held accountable for those deaths. Hidden further underneath is another meaning; it is a classic example of the inability of a one-party state to handle legitimate protest and/or its aftermath. For that and other reasons, the questions of where were you when this all went down and what did it mean will continue to be asked.

The protests had started as gatherings at Tiananmen some time earlier in 1989 with the death of a reformer Hu Yaobang on April 15. Hu had long pressed for reforms including anti-corruption, freedom of the press and democratic involvement of the people. His death and the lack of resolution of these issues eventually led to Martial Law being declared on May 20. When a resolution still was not reached and the people and students were still not satisfied, the PRC government turned to the only solution a one-party state has for lack of agreement, that of brute force. Though still blocked in China, brutal images of the results can be found in numerous places on the Internet.

This writer happened to be in Taipei, Taiwan at the time and a surprising memory that still lingers from then was not just the brute force, which many had expected from the government, but from later meetings with foreigners coming out of China the next week and finding that they knew nothing of what had happened on June 4th. Protests in support of Tiananmen had occurred in other cities in China at the time, but the government censors had done a remarkable job in keeping them out of the media.

Such censorship triggered for me the memory of another shooting, this one in the USA on May 4, 1970 at Kent State University in Ohio. There, four students were killed and nine others wounded when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on those protesting the involvement of the United States in the war in Vietnam. At that time I was a graduate student and teaching assistant at Syracuse University and again besides the shock, a surprising memory that remains was the speed with which the news of this shooting spread across the whole of the United States and caused an immediate protest and shutdown of most universities and colleges and even some high schools. At Syracuse since it was not far from the end of the semester professors and teaching assistants were told to give all students the current grade that they had achieved and close the semester out. The shooting however, remained a constant topic of discussion that continued on as the Vietnam War dragged on.

So what about the deaths, students and otherwise, at Tiananmen? How after twenty-five years is memory of the Tiananmen Square Massacre preserved particularly in Asia? In China as was said, it is a forbidden topic. The petitions of parents of the deceased remain ignored. There are no ceremonies. Life goes on as if June 4th never happened. Instead, the burden of the memory is ironically carried on outside of China.

This past May 4th, for example, An Anthology of June Fourth Poetry was published in Hong Kong. This collection of poems draws from the work of 100 poets of Taiwan, Hong Kong and China each with their own insights on the affair.

Goddess of Democracy in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is its own special reason to preserve these memories. Many, again as this author, were present there on July 1, 1997 when the United Kingdom returned Hong Kong to the PRC. That was a festive celebration with festive memories, memories that have long since turned sour. The people of Hong Kong had been promised democracy in twenty years from that date and yet they are no closer to it now than they were seventeen years ago. For this and other reasons the remembrance of June 4th Tiananmen has become an annual affair in Hong Kong. A protest march was held this past weekend and a larger one is planned for the coming weekend. Hong Kong, a city that has known prosperity also knows the value of democracy.

In Taiwan, the motivation is different. The people there have achieved a hard won democracy from their own one-party state. Democracy for them is highly valued. Here, a vigil commemorating those that died for democracy at Tiananmen will be held at Liberty Square in front of the Chiang Kai-shek memorial. Participants of the 1989 Tiananmen protest will speak along with leaders of pro-democracy movements including those of Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and other pro-democracy movements.

Wang DanTaiwan is no stranger to democracy advocates from outside as well. It is home to two exiled leaders of the Tiananmen protests. Wang Dan who has been teaching at National Tsing Hua University for five years. Wuer Kaixi another leader now resides here. He has repeatedly risked jail in attempting to return to China but he has been rejected.

In contrast to these remembrances, of course there stand many in the international business community who appear happy to forget Tiananmen and replace it with current motives of profit. Sanctions that had been originally imposed by Western powers on China after the massacre seem for the most part to have fallen by the wayside today. Investment in China continues and human rights have taken a back seat to it. This sacrifice of democracy to economics by them is also a question that faces many in China where near one third of the current population was born after June 1989.

All these memories reveal the big difference between a one-party state and a state with a multi-party democracy. In a multi-party democracy, protest is the way that minorities can be sure that their voices are heard. Taiwan went through this experience when Martial Law was lifted and other political parties besides the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) were allowed in 1987. It was only after that year that remembrances of 2/28 and the White Terror could only be openly discussed.

One-party states can control the media, erase things, and forbid certain events to be spoken of. But once there is a democracy, an opposition party exists, and one of its functions is to always demand accountability. This is why Taiwanese can sympathize with the Chinese, and how Chinese can learn from Taiwan. The Tiananmen Massacre is something that China wishes would go away, but as long as the Square is there, and the people within and/or without China remember it, the blood shed there cannot be erased. One way to remember is to continue to ask, “Where were you when the Tiananmen Square Massacre took place?”

Jerome F. Keating Ph.D. is a United States Citizen who has lived and worked in Taiwan for over two decades; a retired professor, he has written four books on Taiwan, Island in the Stream, a Quick Case Study of Taiwan’s Complex HistoryTaiwan, the Struggles of a DemocracyTaiwan, the Search for Identity; and The Mapping of Taiwan, Desired Economies, Competing Monopolies, New Perspectives on Cartography, Competing Monopolies, and the Destiny of Taiwan.

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