03 June 2014

On matters relating to the fourth of June

I daren’t consider myself a zhongguo tong. The fact is, I simply haven’t been here long enough, in spite of the quaking economic and cultural shifts I’ve been witness to since 2004 (when I visited the first time). I imagine, from what older China hands than myself have told me, that I never will consider myself to have ‘been here long enough’. I was not, of course, here or aware during the events of 1989 – being three years old at the time. It is, of course, incumbent upon all of us who take an interest in the topic to listen first to the voices and recollections of those who were actually there at the Minyun protests, and those who actually saw with their own eyes what happened. My teacher David Moser, who has been here a long time, takes his own recollections of Beijing in 1989 to paint a truly stunning and heartbreaking picture of what happened back then, in this post over at The Anthill.

At the same time, I have a complex relationship with Tian’anmen. Just as a heavy stone cast deep into a still pond can cause waves to echo around the pond for minutes afterward, the events of the fourth of June continue to affect how people relate to their government and to each other. Per usual, the Chinese government and its legions of official and professional critics each want to spin the movement to fit neatly into their preconceived narratives; David Moser offers a sterling example of how the Chinese government has managed to accomplish this. The demonisation and discredit of the Minyun student leaders by the government is distasteful enough, but the degree to which their cause has been self-servingly and self-righteously co-opted by the governments of the Anglosphere and Western Europe does very little credit to them either. There are, from what I can tell, three layers to the discussion over Tian’anmen that continue to have impacts. The first and most basic is what happened; the second is who is allowed (or qualified) to talk about it; and third is what the protests meant.

The third point colours each of the other two, I believe. My wife speaks for many of the Chinese people of our generation, I think, when she offers the opinion that the student protesters were brave, but at the same time quite reckless; she holds that the government leadership were originally willing to talk to the Minyun leadership, but that the same leadership was too disorganised. This is very similar to the mainstream opinion in the US, for example, regarding the Occupy protests.

It must be stressed that the two movements – the Chinese democracy movement and the Occupy movement – are very similar both in the breadth of their ideological base and in their raisons d’être; even sharing some high-profile participants (like Chai Ling and Shen Tong). Both were largely protesting an unholy marriage of government to entrenched private speculative and corporate interests. Both drew heavily upon a strong element of organised labour; notably the discontent of workers at having been left out of the benefits of a development which enriched only the well-connected ‘one percent’. Both focussed on the need for higher employment and for the social safety-net; the working-class elements of the Minyun were adamant that the institution of the ‘iron rice bowl’ be preserved.

Tellingly, the working-class element of the ‘89 Minyun was the one which suffered the heaviest reprisals in the aftermath. The first show trials and executions after Tian’anmen were those of three labourers: Xu Guoming, Bian Hanwu and Yan Xuerong. As noted above, most of the students who were arrested (like Wang Dan and Wang Hui) were sentenced to light prison sentences or re-education. Others (like Wu’erkaixi, Shen Tong, Feng Congde and Chai Ling) had the connexions and economic wherewithal to leave the country immediately, and did so. Even Chen Ziming and Wang Juntao, the alleged ‘black hands’ of the protests, were sentenced to 13 years in prison rather than to the death penalty.

As the aforementioned 1989 protester and idiosyncratic leftist intellectual Wang Hui has pointed out, this is very far from being a convenient truth for Western governments to swallow. They would prefer the protests – and indeed do all in their power to cast them – to be simple affirmations of the neoliberal democratic-capitalist worldview. The reforms get glossed as ‘democratic’, leading readers to believe that their aims were merely concerned with procedural rights and reforms rather than economic ones – a half-truth at best. In this, the Western governments are in fundamental agreement with the government of Deng Xiaoping that the protesters were advocates of ‘bourgeois liberalism’. The American government in particular seeks in the 1989 protests an affirmation of its ideology, its entire world-project. (But at the same time – speaking of rewriting history! – that same government just sent Occupy activist Cecily McMillan to gaol for having the audacity to instinctively defend herself from sexual assault by a New York police officer.)

As such, the Western treatment of the Minyun protests almost always focus on (certain of the) student leaders, as evidenced by all the attention in the Western media lavished on Liu Xiaobo – who has become just such an affirmer in his love of capitalism, (American) militarism and bigoted hatred of Muslims – and on the easily co-opted symbolism of the Goddess of Democracy. The labour element in the protests is practically always left unmentioned, not to mention the specific focus by the protesters on the socio-economic unevenness – one might even dare say rapine – of the ‘reform and opening’ policies which meet with uncritical praise from most corners of the Anglophone West. The workers’ role in the protests gets downplayed, and the fact gets completely airbrushed from mainstream Anglophone media accounts that the students and workers alike were known to sing ‘The Internationale’ and ‘La Marseillaise’ as symbols of their unity. The Western account of Tian’anmen comes off, in these cases, every bit as one-sided and self-servingly propagandistic as the official Chinese one.

Absolutely a deeper discussion of ‘what happened’ at Tian’anmen is needed, as are discussions of what the protests and the crackdown have cost Chinese society as a whole, and how the society ought to move forward from it. Even as inexperienced as I am in China, and with even as little knowledge as I have from it, I can still recognise the slow-healing wounds. But the calls from specifically American and British media to ‘remember’ Tian’anmen today ought to be greeted with particularly deep scepticism – their ‘remembrance’ smacks of smug self-congratulation and contempt. As wrong as it is to send the memories of ’89 down the ‘memory hole’, it is does an equal disservice to the participants to remember them incorrectly, for purely ideological reasons.


  1. As a former union member, the only thing that I can say about the neglect of the working-class elements is "Amen!". In the recent riots-cum-coup in the Maidan, the Anglosphere media completely overlooked the theme that workers in the notional "Ukraine" felt oppressed after 23 years of feral oligarch rule. Indeed, when rightwing elements took over in the coup after the toppling of the legitimate government, there was no mention of the junta's torture of left activists (as in the case of R S Vasilko, a member of the KPU Lvov Obkom). Did you also note the whitewashing of Nazi symbolism in use by the putschists? That is, the Western media portrayed the Maidan much as it did Tiananmen... ignoring the real story and the very real suffering of the working people. As someone who walked on more than one picket line, I can smell Upper Middle condescension when it appears... and such did occur in both the Maidan and Tiananmen. God willing, this particular era is drawing to a close...

  2. Welcome back, Vara!

    Yes, I recall some of the images of left protesters and union members being beaten up in the streets by Maidan activists. You had to go digging for them - they weren't reported on by the mainstream Anglophone media - but they were there and they were damning. The entire process of the Ukraine's politics in 2014 was a bitter and bloody business, egged on by the neocon elements in our government. Absolutely nothing good has come of it, not for the common people living there.

  3. And yes, I noticed quite a few wolfsangel armbands, circle crosses and straight-arm salutes on the streets in Kiev as well, when Yanukovych was illegally thrown out of office. Those haven't gone away either.