all the anniversaries celebrated in China one conspicuous date remains
forgotten by much of the population: June 4th. In the
late 1980s, inflation, increasing corruption and rising unemployment
contributed to several student led protests, with the death of reform
politician Hu Yaobang in 1989, students all over China linked the
mourning ceremonies with acute dissatisfaction and took to the streets.
The protests in the Spring of 1989 are famous throughout the West:
images of student rallies, hunger strikes and the lone bespectacled
student facing down a line of tanks are etched into the memories
of many westerners above the age of 21.
battle fought in Beijing that year focused on rampant corruption
and the lack of a Fifth Modernization democracy. The positions taken
by the government and the students back then were anti-bourgeois
liberalization and stability for the former, anti-nepotism and pro-democracy
for the latter.
battle seems like ancient history in today's China, with the government
allowing "capitalists" into the Party and encouraging
foreign businesses to invest in the Mainland and students taking
advantage of every relationship possible in order to get ahead.
to recorded conversations and documents now available throughout
the West, the Elders led by Old Deng and the new guard led by Li
Peng and then-Shanghai mayor Jiang Zemin saw the mass movement as
a "spear pointed at the heart of the Party" and socialist
ideology. Paranoid and terrified of a new Cultural Revolution, the
Party leaders distinguished between a small minority of dissenters,
supported by foreigners, the Kuomintang and overseas Chinese and
the patriotic students whose aims and demands supposedly mirrored
the Party's own goals: the eradication of corruption and the eventual
progression to a democratic China. In what was seen then as a Last
Battle between the proponents of reform and the old guard, thousands
of students and Beijing residents were shot and killed, "order"
was restored and the "stable, slow road to modernization"
favored by Old Deng and his supporters resumed.
Zemin, whose dismissal of the Shanghai World Economic Herald's Editor
sparked a furious response at the height of the movement, assumed
Party leadership instead of hardline socialist throwback Li Peng
and steered China into the WTO, and back into the international
everything the students fought against and everything the government
swore it abhorred in June 1989 has come to be in the 21st
liberalization" is in full swing all over the Mainland. The
Western "values" the old guard so despised are commonplace:
divorce, drug use, liberalized sexuality, mass consumption, individual
greed. Corruption is at an all-time high. The sons and daughters
of officials and businessmen drive million dollar cars and go abroad
as they please. Black Hand gangs exert control over swaths of the
country and masquerade as legitimate businessmen. Success is 50
percent ability and 50 percent connections.
more ironic, what the students fought for and what the government
promised has also come to being.
are more prosperous with each passing year. Luxury goods are (somewhat)
affordable, people can travel, cuisine is becoming more and more
internationalized and few people go hungry, even in some of the
poorest regions. China's economy is growing by leaps and bounds
by most experts' standards and the whole country is a construction
site. What was a dump yesterday is a four-star hotel/apartement
complex/bustling mall the next. Corrupt officals can afford to buy
their sons a Benz.
drivers speak openly about the failings of the government, businessmen
boast how they don't give a hoot about what the government does
or says, school children discuss corruption, university students
discuss Taiwan, Tibet and the Fall of Marxism and peasants will
sit with a foreigner and discuss the rising taxes, the falling income
and the horrors of the Moa Zedong era. People leave the country
to make fortunes, study and sightsee. The media enjoys more freeedom
than before, although not enough to consitute a free press by any
as if June 4th never happened. It's as if the students
never rose up and the military never fired a shot. Today's University
students know little if anything about 1989 and don't much care.
Those old enough to remember don't believe the stories of blood
and death and don't much care either. Old Deng will go down in Chinese
history as the man who brought China out of the pit and into the
light, instead of the iron fisted dictator with Chinese blood seeping
through his fingers. One of the most defining events in Chinese
history is forgotten here and remembered abroad: Americans know
more/think more about Tiananmen than the average Chinese.
1989, an influential intellectual and leader in the mass movement,
Fang Lizhi, proclaimed to the students one afternoon that they would
go down in history as patriots and true defenders of the motherland.
Instead most of them have been exiled, jailed or forgotten by the
masses: Tiananmen might be considered as a necessary sacrifice on
the long road to modernization. Did those students die for nothing?
Did their sacrifice pave the way for today's Chinese exchange students
and jet-setting Little Emperors?
truly believe that without June 4th, modern China would
not be as free and vibrant as it is today. Jiang Zemin learned his
lesson well, and he plays his cards well at the poker table with
Party hardliners, Black Hand gangsters, Shanghai and Hong Kong businessmen,
pipe puffing peasants, and eager college graduates.
today is comparable to the USA at the turn of the century. From
1900 to 1930 the USA was rocked by massive worker demonstrations,
black revolts, suffragist marches and antiwar protests. Many of
those true patriots died at the hands of the US Government and Civil
Guard. Most of them are forgotten by todays youth but without them
there would be no today. So for now Tiananmen remains a buried milestone
and turning point for China perhaps one day we'll see a People's
History of the People's Republic and a revival of the Spirit of
1989. Until then June 4th will remain the forgotten rebellion
in Mainland China.
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is a teacher living and working in China. His articles have appeared
in the South China Morning Post, the Minnesota Daily,
and elsewhere. His exclusive Antiwar.com column (usually) appears
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