June 2014: Remembering Tiananmen: The View from Hong Kong
By Denise Y. Ho
In between memory and forgetting, there is commemoration. Twenty-five years ago this month, a protest in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square ended in tragedy. As historical event, the contours of the Tiananmen student movement have long since entered textbooks in the West.
The story goes something like this: In the wake of Mao Zedong’s death (1976) and the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping embarked on a series of economic reforms. Despite the success of this “second liberation,” inequalities and corruption—combined with an era of relative openness—led to calls for political change. In April of 1989, student commemorations of the late Party Secretary Hu Yaobang escalated into a wider protest, eventually numbering up to a million people, and gaining the support of Beijing citizens.
Participants on the square staged a dramatic hunger strike captured by foreign media and called for democracy. On the night of June 4th, the People’s Liberation Army moved into the heart of Beijing, armed with tanks and heavy artillery. The death toll remains disputed.
Today Tiananmen is referred to as an incident (shijian) by the Communist state, and as a massacre by its detractors. But there are other ways of referring to the event: the Chinese word for June 4th (liusi, or 6-4) is one, while May 35th—a way to allude both to Tiananmen and its enforced erasure from public discourse—is another. Both of these numbers are politically taboo, and are among the terms most rapidly scrubbed from the Internet.
Every year in the lead-up to the Tiananmen anniversary the Chinese state goes on high alert. Foreign journalists are warned not to cover the event, and Chinese intellectuals are arrested or otherwise made to disappear. Tiananmen Square, once carved from imperial grounds to create open political space for “the people,” once a place for kite-flying and for college students to study into the night, is cordoned off under the hot summer sky. It is perhaps a metaphor for the memory of June 4th itself, blank and guarded.
One cannot commemorate Tiananmen in China, and one word that threads through much of this year’s June 4th coverage is amnesia, wondering when, from forgetting, China will eventually wake.
In between patriotism and counterrevolution, there was the student. The Tiananmen movement began with a new generation of college student. In the 1980s, youths were once again allowed to go to college—after the Cultural Revolution’s disruptions—and through the 1980s they had been calling for greater freedoms.
These students followed in a long tradition of the intellectual-as-conscience in Chinese society. In imperial times, the upright official was to remonstrate his lord; in the eleventh century, the literatus Fan Zhongyan wrote that the intellectual was the first to worry over the world and the last to enjoy its pleasures.
In the twentieth century, when China became a republic, the new-style student inherited this mantle, becoming a voice for the nation. These college students, both men and women, would suffer in the post-1949 People’s Republic and possibly even pay with their lives. But even those who survived would remember that they studied to “save the nation” (jiuguo).
The students of 1989 consciously imitated their forebears. Recalling the nationalism of the May Fourth (1919) Movement, they called for “science and democracy.” In their hunger strike manifestos they invoked “Mother China” and bade farewell as patriots.
Yet to the state the students were counterrevolutionaries. Borrowing from the language of Maoist China, the official People’s Daily newspaper branded the movement as one incited by a “tiny handful of people [who took] this opportunity to fabricate rumors and openly attack Party and government leaders.” Indeed, the escalation of the student movement can be traced to the students’ own desire to proclaim that theirs was a “patriotic and democratic student movement.” To this day the judgment of the Party stands: PLA soldiers were martyred suppressing “counterrevolutionary rebellion.”
One way of remembering Tiananmen outside of China is to call the students the martyrs. In this year’s Tiananmen vigil in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park—where Tiananmen can be commemorated—the participants rally to rehabilitate (pingfan) June 4th. Almost 180,000 people attended the vigil, and in one of its most dramatic moments its organizers—the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China—marched towards the stage to a somber drumbeat and a reading of names, bearing a wreath for the fallen.
In between state and society, there is the individual. One of the most iconic images from 1989 is that of the “Tankman” (below right), a nameless Beijing citizen who was caught on camera in a face-off with one of the PLA’s tanks. A photograph that came to stand for the individual against autocracy, it has had a mixed legacy.
In the West, the image has alternately been used as a symbol for activists or, stripped of its original context, as a poster for the counterculture dorm room. In China, the photograph is not recognizable to young college students, and thus stands for Tiananmen amnesia.
We now know that the “Tankman,” standing in the path of power with a plastic shopping bag, was someone called Wang Weilin, and his name was invoked by the most moving speaker at Hong Kong’s Tiananmen vigil. This individual was the rights lawyer Teng Biao, best known in the West for his defense of the blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng. To six football fields of flickering lights, Teng argued that since Tiananmen 25 years ago, political suppression has continued, enumerating petitioners and prisoners, Tibetans and Uighurs, homeowners facing demolition, and lawyers and their own defenders.
Teng’s speech, calling for another 1989 but not another June 4th, was inspiring less for his words and more for the drama of his presence. Of all the participants holding candles, he took the greatest risk in speaking out. Having known arrest, “disappearance,” and torture, he gave his voice to the crowd and to the commemoration, while his own family—unlike those of thousands of Chinese officials—is still resident in the People’s Republic.
In between China’s past and China’s present, there is the exile. If Teng Biao has come to live in a marginal space in China—instructed to vanish and forbidden to speak around Tiananmen’s commemoration— a generation of students who were nearly his contemporaries went into exile.
Most prominent among them was the Peking University history student and leader Wang Dan (pictured left), who earned a doctorate at Harvard and continues to be politically active outside of China. A video of several of the student leaders, including Wang Dan, was included in the Hong Kong vigil, offering their support of Tiananmen remembrance. Though the student-leaders have led checkered lives since exile, it is poignant to remember that none truly had the choice to reform the system from within. And poignant too is it to see their faces on the giant screens that flanked Victoria Park. In textbooks and documentaries, these men are fresh-faced, sporting long hair and blue jeans and looking not unlike our own students.
As the video flashes from historic photograph to contemporary video message, one is shocked by the faces of men middle-aged and heavyset. A young and intense Wu’erkaixi leads the 1989 crowd, perhaps to sing the Internationale. A man without a country, nearly fifty, broadcasts his greeting from Taiwan.
A second kind of exile is that of the Westerner’s reverse exile from China. In the days before this year’s June 4th anniversary, the American academic Perry Link came to speak at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, in a panel moderated by Teng Biao. Link was instrumental in the refuge in the American Embassy of astrophysicist and liberal intellectual Fang Lizhi. Thus, though Link devotes his life to the study and teaching of China, he can never return.