Last week, I discussed the prelude to the Tiananmen Square uprising and the ruthless government crackdown on June 4, 1989. The slaughter of students and their supporters who gathered in Beijing in the spring of 1989 and occupied Tiananmen Square for seven weeks made the world recoil in horror and isolated China. Deng Xiaoping with the support of other Chinese Communist Party leaders ordered the violent crackdown, worried because the protests had spread to 400 cities throughout the country. In their view, this was a matter of regime survival and therefore a price that had to be paid. Deng’s camp also believed that Party Secretary General Zhao Ziyang was somehow involved in instigating the protests and intended to use this popular movement to sideline them and adopt political reforms they feared would precipitate the party’s demise.
Philip Cunningham’s superb first-hand account of the 1989 student democracy movement, titled “Tiananmen Moon,” has been reissued by Rowman & Littlefield to commemorate the 25th anniversary. Cunningham was a student in Beijing at that time and presents a riveting and moving insider’s perspective on the protest movement. He also worked with international news media so comes to the subject from different angles. Clearly events were fast moving and there was more chaos than coherence as students voiced their various grievances and demands for reform. Fernando Mezzetti, who covered the protests for the Italian newspaper La Stampa, is dismissive of the students, pointing out they adopted party structures and seemed more Maoist than democratic. Cunningham argues it was more complicated as the students were improvising. It was a messy situation as those unfamiliar with the workings of democracy embraced the idea even as they were uncertain how to achieve it in practice. Perhaps they were naive, but Cunningham’s nuanced perspective, benefitting from his fluency in Chinese and close connections with fellow students of a similar age, helps us understand events from their perspective. He details the growing rifts between student factions and the suspicions and intrigue between them. Cunningham also conveys the sincerity and passion of the hunger strikers, the confusion, courage and fear of the student leaders and a vague sense of shadowy forces manipulating events on the chessboard of Tiananmen Square.
The “Tiananmen Massacre,” a reference to security forces killing protesters in various places around Beijing outside of the hallowed square, remains a taboo. Mezzetti says everyone was kept away from the zones of carnage and that nobody credits the official estimates of a few hundred deaths. He alleges there was an orchestrated coverup as bodies were removed covertly by helicopter and cremated, bypassing morgues and the official tally.
The protests had pressured Deng from two sides — the old guard who wanted to use the unrest to derail his reforms, which were launched in 1978, and the students who wanted political liberalization. From June 4, political dissent was resolutely quelled and sympathizers purged. On June 9, 1989, Deng made a speech praising the military for passing “a severe political test” and unequivocally justifying the use of force. The democracy movement was dismissed as, “a rebellious clique and a large number of the dregs of society, who want to topple our country and overthrow our party.” He accused the students of embracing bourgeois liberalism and trying to undermine the nation’s socialist principles in the name of rooting out corruption. He also promoted stricter curbs on freedom of speech, assembly and the press, flouting the students’ demands that had proven so popular nationwide. While invoking the legitimizing benefits of great economic advances his policies had engendered, Deng also lashed out, “America has criticized us for suppressing students. In handling its internal student strikes and unrest, didn’t America mobilize police and troops, arrest people and shed blood? They are suppressing students and the people, but we are quelling a counterrevolutionary rebellion. What qualifications do they have to criticize us?”
The wily cold-blooded veteran prevailed, betting that growth would cure what ailed China. This is what emerged from the bloodstained streets of Beijing, growth at all costs, but the party was in serious need of shoring up its legitimacy and thus this is when patriotic education emerged as a centerpiece of the government’s propaganda efforts. Mao had downplayed Japanese depredations during the 1930s and ’40s, actually thanking a visiting Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka in 1972 for helping the Communist Party defeat the nationalist Kuomintang that had borne the brunt of fighting against the invading Japanese Imperial armed forces. But after Tiananmen, China played the history card, rolling out a patriotic education campaign designed to burnish the party’s reputation as a defender of the nation against the Japanese, revising the curriculum to emphasize atrocities and suffering endured and thereby stoking anti-Japanese sentiments. In this it was successful.
As Stanford University historian Peter Duus remarks: “The Tiananmen incident was a historical turning point that never turned. Instead of learning from the pro-democracy demonstrations the (Chinese) leadership chose to forget them and ramp up its patriotic education campaign. It was an unfortunate choice not only for the Chinese people but for regional peace as well.”
Andrew Horvat, visiting professor at Josai International University further explains, “The patriotic education campaign that was started in response to Tiananmen ironically served the interests of Japanese nationalists since the exaggerations and half-truths emanating from China about history allowed the Japanese nationalists to respond in kind.” Adding to the irony, Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University, remarks, “Needless to say, Japan was the first country to lift the sanctions and normalize ties with China, prioritizing closer economic cooperation over political concerns.”
Regarding the tango over history, Cunningham adds: “History gets wrapped up, white-washed and repackaged for public consumption. The bite-size explanatory bits make it possible to spew an opinion on the matter without really thinking about it or thinking it through.
“People renew their interest in historic events when troubled times in the present call for it, I suppose we can see that with the ebb and flow of interest in the Nanjing Massacre for example. Nothing like a few idiotic opinion leaders denying it to renew interest in the actual history of it.”
He concludes, “In the long run, I think Tiananmen will go down as a patriotic movement that was tragically, cruelly and mistakenly crushed by an arrogant clique of power holders somewhat akin to the way we now understand the Cultural Revolution.”
Second of three parts in a series on Tiananmen Square. Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan