Remembering the Carnage in Tiananmen: June 4, 1989
A forum at UCLA analyzes the legacy of Tiananmen, and UCLA's Richard Baum interviewed on CNN
On June 4, 2004 -- the fifteenth anniversary of the bloody suppression of student demonstrators in Tiananmen square in Beijing -- CNN presented a lengthy report on the violent crackdown and its aftermath. Richard Baum, professor of Political Science and director of the Center for Chinese Studies, was widely quoted in the report.
A print version of the report is available on line at the CNN website.
At a forum at UCLA on the Tiananmen incident held at UCLA on June 2, Professor Baum described what happened on June 4, 1989 as a "defining moment" for contemporary China. For tens of millions of people outside of China who -- via TV -- witnessed the People's Liberation Army's assault on unarmed students and workers, the nature of the communist system in China was laid bare. Until the authorities in China come to grips with what happened on June 4, Professor Baum argued, whenever the outside world thinks of the government of contemporary China, it will immediately identify that government with the horrifying images of soldiers attacking students.
The Personal Tragedy of the Tiananmen Massacre
For the people of China also Tiananmen is of course a defining moment, and a deeply personal one. At the forum, Xiao Qiang, founding director of Human Rights Watch China and currently director of the China Internet Project at UC Berkeley, delivered a moving, and at times wrenching, analysis of the massacre. Xiao, who was a physics student at Notre Dame University in June, 1989, on hearing of the massacre, immediately returned to China. When he got to Beijing, he went to the streets leading from Tiananmen Square -- which were occupied by soldiers -- to visit the scene of the killings. Everywhere there were soldiers wearing white gloves and carrying rifles that appeared loaded. A small group of citizens was standing near a squad of soldiers. As Xiao Qiang joined the bystanders, he saw a man approach the soldiers and ask, "Where are you from?" The soldiers did not reply. The man persisted in his questioning, and at last a soldier spoke: "I'm not from the 27th Army." (It was the 27th Army that reportedly had carried out the killings.) Just then, an officer marched up, and with the butt of his rifle knocked the man to the ground. Xiao Qiang declared that he was sure that if he or anyone else protested, he would be shot. Immediately, Xiao Qiang continued, he understood the "message" of June 4 that Deng Xiaoping, China's paramount leader, wanted to drive home: If you rebel, we will crush you.
Xiao Qiang went on to relate three stories of personal tragedies bound up in the events in Tiananmen involving people of his generation, namely, people who were in their 20s in on June 4, 1989. "That day permanently created an identity for this generation," Xiao declared. "I do not believe this event has gone from the Chinese memory."
History and Memory
Orville Schell, dean UC Berkeley School of Journalism, also spoke of memory: "Is it possible to forget? Should we forget? Is history important, or only an old story that happened long ago?"
To these questions, Schell, like Xiao Qing, gave a personal answer. In Schell's words, the Tiananmen incident was "the most techtonic piece of history that I'll ever have the privilege of witnessing." Clearly, for Schell the Tiananmen movement, and its tragic conclusion, will always live in his memory. But Schell also spoke of what might be called the social memory of the Tiananmen incident. After all, the democracy movement that focused on Tiananmen Square actually was spread across 371 cities and involved one hundred million people. It would be hard to imagine something so widespread and so intense disappearing from the nation's memory.
However, the Chinese state refuses to recognize its history; it continues to do all it can to repress the memory of its bloody suppression of the Tiananmen movement. This, Schell contended, is not just a question of dealing with the past, with something that is finished and done. Rather, the attempt to deny the memory of Tiananmen continues to distort China. "What is denied China as a result of 1989, and as result of not having the verdict reversed, is the dignity of having a correct verdict. . . . This is the charge: to put the right name on what happened. . . . Until this is done, China cannot win the respect of other nations, and it will continue to lack dignity and feel inferior."
Schell has no doubt that one day the state will reverse the verdict on Tiananmen, that it will pubicly and loudly denounce what happened on June 4. Until that time, however, China will "have a monumentally difficult time, expressed in subtle ways, of moving forward into the future."
Making Peace with History
To conclude the forum, Richard Baum argued that China "needs to make peace with its history." Other states in East Asia have confronted historical incidents that were in some ways similar to the Tiananmen massacre and have assimilated these events into the nation's history. Baum mentioned the 2/28 incident of February 28, 1947 in Taiwan and the Kwangju incident of May 1980 in South Korea. In the former, Nationalist troops violently put down demonstrations throughout Taiwan. For nearly forty years, the subject was taboo in Taiwan. But, as the website of the Taiwanese govenment says: "The once taboo subject of the February 28 Incident has finally come to world attention. In the 1970s , the February 28 Justice and Peace Movement was initiated by citizen's groups, and in 1992 the Executive Yuan promulgated the 'February 28 Incident Research Report.' In 1995, former President Lee Teng-hui made a formal apology on behalf of the government. Other official amends have been made since that time. Taipei New Park was renamed 228 Memorial Park, and monument was erected in the park. The government also designated February 28 as Peace Memorial Day."
In South Korea, the Kwangju incident -- a ten-day confrontation in May 1980 between ROK special forces troops and anti-martial law demonstrators, which resulted in perhaps 2,000 deaths -- also finally became a part of the state's memory so to speak: two national leaders -- Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo -- went on trial for their part in the incident, and the government now speaks of the incident as a turning point in South Korea's struggle for democracy.
In China too, Baum declared, it is ineviable that there will be a reapparaisal of the Tiananmen incident.
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Orville Schell is dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. From his days as a student of Far Eastern history at Harvard, through his UC Berkeley masters degree in Chinese history, to his latest work on Hong Kong and Tibet, Schell has virtually devoted his professional life to reporting on and writing about Asia. Author of 14 books -- nine on China, including Virtual Tibet, Mandate of Heaven, and Discos and Democracy -- Dean Schell has also written widely about Asia for Wired, The New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, Harpers, Newsweek and other national magazines. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim and an Alicia Patterson Foundation fellowship and numerous writing prizes. Dean Schell has also served as correspondent and consultant for several PBS Frontline documentaries as well as an Emmy award-winning program on China for CBS 60 Minutes.
Xiao Qiang was the founding director of Human Rights in China, an international nongovernmental organization dedicated to the promotion of universally recognized human rights and the advancement of the institutional protections of these rights in China. He is now director of the China Internet Project at UC Berkeley. A physicist by training, Xiao studied as a Ph.D. candidate (1986-89) in astrophysics at the University of Notre Dame. He became a full-time human rights activist after the Tiananmen incident of 1989. Xiao was the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship in 2001, and is profiled in the book Soul Purpose: 40 People Who Are Changing the World for the Better (Melcher Media, 2003). He is also a weekly commentator for Radio Free Asia.
Richard Baum is professor of Political Science and director of the Center for Chinese Studies, UCLA. He has written and edited eight books and has authored more than 100 articles in scholarly and popular journals. He served as a consultant on China to President George H.W. Bush, and he is a frequent commentator on Chinese affairs for CNN, NPR, BBC, VOA, and various national and international print and broadcast media. His current research focuses on the domestic political consequences of China's increasing global interdependence and the prospects for war and peace in the Taiwan Strait.
Published: Thursday, June 10, 2004