Three Thoughts On The Tiananmen Massacre

by    /  September 22, 2010  / No comments

Translated by Michelle Yeh

On April 25, 2009, I received a phone call from Sampsonia Way asking me to comment on the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre (or “June Fourth” to the Chinese).

First of all, let me say that massacres are not rare in China. The 1989 incident shocked the world because it unfolded center-stage in the spotlight of international media. In the dark corners far from the stage, massacres had never stopped, unknown to the outside world.

For instance, even after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the crackdown in 1983 killed more than 300,000, most of whom were young. My estimate is that over the course of four decades (1949-1989), the number of “unnatural” deaths approximates 80 million. When we contextualize the 1989 Tiananmen massacre this way, it doesn’t appear as unique.

Democracy movements in China are not unique, either. The democracy movement that ended with the massacre on June 4, 1989, is part of a century-long grass-roots movement in China. This year marks not only the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre but also the ninetieth anniversary of the May Fourth Movement. The May Fourth Movement was characterized by the 1919 student demonstrations supporting the ideals of democracy, science and cultural enlightenment. The official government version of the May Fourth Movement is a narrowly defined “patriotism,” which serves the government’s need to cover up the deepening conflict between those in power and the people, between the ruler and the ruled.

The fact is that there is continuity between the 1919 student calls for cultural reform and the 1989 student calls for thought liberation. Whether it is the “Gongche Petition to the Emperor” in the late Qing Dynasty or the so-called “Little Hungary” incidents of 1957, the April Fifth protest of 1976 or the Democracy Wall and underground journals of 1978, they all belong to the same historical trend.

Therefore, on this sad day, what I think about is not only 1989 but the tragic heroism of all democracy movements in modern Chinese history: from Qiu Jin, Tan Sitong, and Li Dazhao, to Lin Zhao, Zhang Zhixin, Yu Luoke, and numerous nameless martyrs of thwarted aspirations; from such pioneers as Liang Qichao, Cai Yuanpei, Chen Duxiu, Lu Xun, and Hu Shi, to the clarion—soon silenced—of the Democracy Wall and underground journals of 1978. Let’s not get hung up on the philosophical differences among the pioneers, the flaws of individual thinkers, or the wrong turns that Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu took in their groundbreaking careers. As vanguards in search of light in the dark, their independent thinking and fearless resistance have planted enduring seeds of fire. As we memorialize the Tiananmen Massacre we must never forget them.

Next, I must say that slogans like “reverse the verdict,” “apologize,” “let the truth be known,” “make amends” are moderate and reasonable, but in essence they legitimize the totalitarian regime. As a strategy, these requests might be acceptable if they would lead to gradual democratization. But, the information that we are receiving on this is that the government has increased its military police patrols and enhanced the use of the “messenger system.” (Consider this analogue: the Dalai Lama has given up the demand of Tibetan independence, but he continues to be labeled by the Chinese government as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”)

There is nothing wrong in being moderate and reasonable, but it is a mistake to ignore the nature of this regime. Since 1949, victims of persecution number tens of millions. Who has ever received recompense from the government? In the past, we heard the excuse from the government that it had no money. Now, China is rolling in dough. The Olympics in 2008 and the space launches have impressed the entire world. But recompense is denied not just to the victims of the Tiananmen Massacre.

In the past two decades, China, like the rest of the world, has experienced massive changes in lifestyle, the environment, earth, and outer space. But some things never change. Fundamentalism is a living dinosaur equipped with modern technology. Chinese totalitarianism today is no different from the time of Chairman Mao.

Why is it that after WWII Germany could repent, apologize, and recompense its victims but Japan could not? The reason is simple: Hitler was dead, but the Japanese emperor system was left intact. The transformations of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe also began with regime change. Gradual reform should not be a one-sided wish. If we cannot practice multi-party democracy and adopt a system of checks and balances, “moderate and reasonable” will only fail repeatedly and even hamper the original intent.

Finally, I don’t believe that the hard power of the military and economy can necessarily overcome the soft power of morality. Compared with the past, the Chinese people are much more enlightened. Once they recognize the nature of the regime, they will be open to choices. Instead of fruitless communicating with the govern-ment, people should have dialogues among themselves, advance their rights as citi-zens, promote the “Charter of 2008” (issued by 303 signatories on the sixtieth anniversary of the World Human Rights Day on December 10, 2008), and investigate the number and identities of the victims of the Tiananmen Massacre. These efforts are difficult to begin, but they bear great responsibilities, have profound significance and an equally profound historical impact. The influences of many progressive media and outstanding thinkers and groups in the private sector cannot be underestimated. For example, the website New Century News and the Hong Kong-based Open Magazine (Kaifang) have an impact no less than that of any private organization. I am also deeply moved by the unity and persistence of members of Falungong in defending their freedom of religion.

I believe all of the above are the best way to memorialize the Tiananmen Massacre.

Living alone in a foreign land, I pay the highest respect to the signatories of the “Charter of 2008,” the “Tiananmen Mothers,” the civil rights lawyers, as well as the progressive media, civilian leaders, courageous writers, and members of Falungong.

on “One on One,” KNPR, Nevada Public Radio

In Search of My Homeland


When Er Tai Gao published his 1957 article, “On Beauty,” he found himself railing against the Communist position on aesthetics and objectivity. The article landed the 32-year-old in a camp in the Gobi desert, where he served hard labor for three years.

Even during the rise of the Cultural Revolution, he remained committed to his humanist views. He was fired from
his position at Lanzhou University and forbidden to write or publish. The Communist regime imprisoned him twice more between 1966 and 1989. Prison, however, did not quench the creative spirit of the painter, art critic and writer.

Following the Tiananmen Square protests, Er Tai Gao was again imprisoned for almost a year. In 1992, he and his wife, painter Maya Gao, escaped to Hong Kong. In 2003, he became the first writer in exile at the first United States City of Refuge at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. He is currently a fellow at the International Institute of Modern Letters at the University of Nevada. His memoir, In Search of My Homeland, is forthcoming from HarperCollins.

When asked to provide Sampsonia Way with a reflection about China twenty years after Tiananmen Square, he offered the following reflection.

Read Er Tai Gao’s bio.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.