The Peril of Silence
By Lijia Zhang in Beijing
I was still a rocket factory girl in Nanjing when the unprecedented democratic movement swept the nation in spring 1989. On May 28, I organised a big demonstration among fellow workers because I believed that we ought to have a say in how we were governed. A week later, at the darkest hour on June 4, the troops opened fire on their own people.
Chen Xitong, Beijing’s mayor at the time, has described the bloody incident as “a regrettable tragedy that could have been avoided” in a book titled Conversation with Chen Xitong that has just been published in Hong Kong. Chen, regarded as a hardliner who was in favour of using force, was promoted after the crackdown but later disgraced on corruption charges.
Why did Chen, 81, go out of his way to tell his side of the story now? I’m not sure I totally believe his version; it contradicts others’ accounts. But it is interesting to see he has betrayed the official line by denouncing the massacre.
On May 28, 1989, I was inspired to take action after I watched moving TV images of workers marching in the rain. Although a manual labourer, I was patriotic and idealistic, like many youth of my generation. At this critical moment, I wanted to show my support, hoping that our leaders would listen.
I heard news of the crackdown on BBC radio. I couldn’t believe it. Chen now says the tragedy “stemmed from the internal [power] struggle at the top level”. Whoever made the decision didn’t consider the wishes of millions; those who went on hunger strike, those who took food to the strikers and those who marched in the rain.
The official verdict labelled the event “counter-revolutionary turmoil”. To this day, the subject remains taboo. Information relating to it is even more strictly controlled than that concerning the Cultural Revolution. The authorities have tried to erase June 4 from the public memory.
They have not succeeded. Every year, dissidents, intellectuals, ordinary people and even a former soldier involved in the crackdown – write petitions to our leaders, calling for a re-evaluation. Those who lost their loved ones demand compensation. In an extreme case, 73-year-old Ya Weilin killed himself recently in Beijing, in protest over his son’s death in the square in 1989, according to media reports.
In the past 23 years, sea changes, many positive, have occurred. The authorities have channelled people’s energy into money-making. While keeping a tight grip on power, they have also gradually granted people more personal freedom. Yet, at a fundamental level, ordinary citizens are still kept away from state affairs.
Recently, we all watched in amazement as Bo Xilai, the bold former party secretary of Chongqing, fell from grace, in an echo of Chen’s downfall. It is widely believed he, too, was a victim of a power struggle at the top.
Few expect the next generation of leaders to address the June 4 issue any time soon. Part of the party apparatus, they know reopening the old wound may lead to more questions and criticism and therefore damage the regime’s credibility. In a long run, however, the perils of not giving people a voice are greater.
There were many, complex reasons for the rise of the 1989 pro-democracy movement. People were dissatisfied with growing corruption and soaring inflation, and the lack of personal freedom and channels to express themselves. The students marching towards Tiananmen were like a spark thrown on to a pile of dry wood – soon people from all over the country joined in, shouting support and venting their grievances.
Last December, the scenes of protesting farmers in Wukan, banners in hand, sparked memories of 1989 for me. More than ever today, the Chinese people are more aware of their rights and are more willing to fight for them.
In March, Premier Wen Jiabao warned that, without political reforms, a historical tragedy like the Cultural Revolution may repeat itself. Isn’t it the same with the June 4 incident?
Lijia Zhang is a Beijing-based writer, commentator and author of Socialism is Great! A Worker’s Memoir of the New China