Twenty-five years of writing by New York Review contributors on the June 4, 1989 massacre
Government in China is still elitist, not electoral. Behind the Tiananmen massacre of June 1989 lies the continuing modern conflict between the two wings of China’s political elite—the power-holders over the Party and army, on the one hand, and the intellectuals and student trainees for government service on the other hand.
The massacres stunned the world—and yet they should not have surprised anyone. The butchers of Peking are entitled to feel genuine puzzlement in the face of the indignation expressed by international opinion. Why should foreigners suddenly change their attitude toward them?
The demonstrations in China from April 15 to June 4, or what the Chinese call “the events” or “the counterrevolutionary turmoil” are not easy to forget. Beijing itself is gripped with fear and hatred of the Party, and the 110 acres of Tiananmen Square, the heart of the city, for the first time in forty years of Communist rule are empty, off-limits to the citizens of Beijing.
About once each decade, the true face of history is thoroughly erased from the memory of Chinese society. This is the objective of the Chinese Communist policy of “Forgetting History.”
The collapse of communism in the motherland of the revolution is a devastating political and psychological blow to the gerontocratic leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But while the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) seems on the verge of extinction, the CCP has survived the challenge to its existence and has regrouped.
Here is a country where the skulls of the young come cheap: in 1979, an innocent twenty-nine-year-old named Wei Jingsheng, who did no more than advocate democracy, is shipped to prison for fifteen years, and nobody finds the event especially surprising.
I turned to a friend and commented that the Martyrs’ Monument might soon be witness to our deaths, but that if not, I would come back to this place every year on this date to remember the victims.
Born in 1919 and a member of the Communist Party since 1938, once he achieved great power he was a political loner, with only—a big only—Deng Xiaoping to back him. But when Deng decided to smash the Tiananmen demonstrations, he also smashed Zhao. When Zhao died in 2005, he was nearly forgotten; but the state was still put on high security alert.
The student-led political movement that arose in April 1989 at Tiananmen was peaceful in its approach and aimed to accelerate the reform of China’s government. I therefore completely agreed with it and supported it.
I felt a shudder of déjà vu watching the mounting protests inside China this week of the Communist Party for censoring an editorial in Southern Weekend, a well-known liberal newspaper in the southern city of Guangzhou. It is all too similar to the disciplining in April 1989 of another Chinese paper, The World Economic Herald in Shanghai, and its editor, Qin Benli—events that played an important part in the gathering unrest in Tiananmen Square.
Deng Xiaoping, the man who said “go” for the final assault on thousands of Chinese citizens protesting peacefully for democracy, has died. But what happened in and around Tiananmen Square twenty-five years ago haunts the memories not only of people who witnessed the events and of friends and families of the victims, but also of those who stood, and still stand, with the attacking side.
A few days before the killings in Tiananmen Square, thousands of unarmed soldiers marched towards the square only to be scolded by elderly women and shamed into turning back. A column of tanks had been stalled on the edge of the city, where young men urinated on their treads while local women offered the crews cups of tea. Now we really thought the Party was finished. How wrong we were.
Should we think of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen massacre as an act frozen in time, awaiting its true recognition and denouement in some vague future? Two new books tackle the Tiananmen events from this vantage point. One is set in China and is about repressing memory; the other is set abroad and is about keeping it alive.
Hu Jia is one of China’s best-known political activists. He participated in the 1989 Tiananmen protests as a fifteen-year-old and is currently under house arrest for having launched a commemoration of the June Fourth massacre in January. But on his way back from a rare unsupervised hospital visit, I met up with him for a talk about his work and the twenty-fifth anniversary of Tiananmen.
Twenty-five years have gone by, we have all grown old. But Tank Man in these pictures is still so young. From far away, his white shirt looks like a lily in summer, pure and unblemished. Tanks stopping in front of a lily. A historical moment, a poetic moment. And on the other side of that moment, maybe three thousand lives were taken away, to be forgotten.