The Ghosts of Tiananmen, Thirty Years On

In the month of June,
in the darkness of the moon
went the descendants of a hundred flowers
And time may never tell
how many of them fell
like the petals of a rose in some satanic shower

It seems that the Spring
this year in Beijing
came just before the Fall
There was no summer at all
in Tiananmen Square, China

— Joan Baez, "China", 1989
Like many around the world, I sat glued before the television set, transfixed by the scenes of thousands of people jamming a public square in the Chinese capital of Beijing for weeks on end as they demanded democracy and a more honest, open form of government from their political leaders. It was the spring of 1989, and I was living in a tiny one-room apartment in downtown Osaka, Japan and working as a journalist.

It took my breath away, watching these scenes unfold in a nearby Asian country. My reporter’s instinct kept on nudging me, and for a time, I thought seriously of getting on a plane and trying to file stories from the heart of China’s growing grassroots democracy movement to the outside world.

But by then…it was all over.

After about a month and a half, the Chinese authorities had had enough. As many as 300,000 of the country’s military forces were sent into Tiananmen Square and, before the eyes of the world, massacred their own people. Tanks, machine guns, rifles, pistols, batons — few weapons were spared in clearing out the crowds from that square in the dead of night. It was a one-sided bloodbath. The estimated death toll ranged from several hundreds to more than 2,000, with thousands more injured.

We now know, according to one military insider, that even at the highest levels of the Chinese military at the time, there was opposition to the country’s armed forces being used to crush civilian-led demonstrations. And yet the order was given to do just that, and a brutal crackdown was carried out to its bloody conclusion.

The Cold War period between the United States and USSR was just winding down around then, but within China, another domestic “cold war” of sorts was just beginning: one that pitted the powers-that-be against the people. Exactly three decades ago today, June 4, that legacy of Tiananmen Square is still with us.

At that time, many governments the world over spoke up in one voice to condemn the Chinese military for the brutality at Tiananmen Square. Many governments, that is, minus one notable exception: the government of Japan, which gave a muted, tepid response to the authorities in China. To its shame, Japan, then as now, was mostly concerned about money, no doubt worried about losing some of the lucrative trade flowing between the two countries if it were to lean too hard on China over Tiananmen Square.

As for me, just three years after Tiananmen Square, I finally made the trip from Japan to China in 1992. Rather than head for Beijing, though, I opted to go to the country’s business capital of Shanghai, where a Chinese friend of mine lived, and to the city of Nanjing, the site of a genocidal occupation by the wartime Japanese military, to gauge the Chinese public mood from there. Japan’s new emperor, Akihito, was then planning an upcoming visit to China — the first such official imperial visit to China since the end of World War II — and I didn’t want to miss this historical chance to cover it. So, off to China I went.

It was an unforgettable experience. Thanks to the efforts of my Chinese friend and his many acquaintances, I got to talk to ordinary people about the reality of Japan-China relations since the war. Here is the story I ended up writing about it.

But talking openly about Tiananmen Square to Chinese people, I soon understood, was strictly taboo. And I could feel the tension in the air about it, even if nobody said a word. Understandably, no one wanted to risk getting suddenly whisked away by Chinese government security agents for speaking to a foreign journalist like me about the massacre.

That became clear to me one Sunday morning when I went to a corner of a downtown public park in Shanghai that was frequented by foreign visitors. Soon I was surrounded by ordinary folks just wanting to try their English-language skills on me. One proud father said he had traveled for hours from the countryside to be here; could I please just say a few words in English to his young daughter? Which I was pleased to do, of course.

But then, I decided to broach with the crowd the sensitive topic of the political situation in China, and immediately an uncomfortable hush fell over the small group surrounding me. Not long after that, seemingly out of nowhere, a TV crew with a camera came over to where we were gathered to interview me, and I realized then just how closely Chinese people and foreigners were still being watched in China, post-Tiananmen Square.

Before I departed China, I wanted to drop into a downtown Shanghai bookstore that stocked some English-language books on its shelves. Surely, I thought, I would be able to find some books on Tiananmen Square there. And I did — just not the ones I was expecting to find.

Prominently displayed in that section of the store were books about Tiananmen Square that had extremely graphic photos of some dead or injured Chinese soldiers, along with burned or overturned military vehicles. In other words, the real victims, the pro-democracy movement activists, were the ones being slandered and blamed for the carnage at Tiananmen Square, while the soldiers were being depicted as heroes and innocent victims of crazed mob violence.

It made my blood boil to hold this kind of government propaganda in my hands, and I almost bought the book out of spite so that I could denounce it publicly sometime later. But I decided against buying it. I was not going to give a cent of my money to any Chinese government agency or private company that peddled propaganda like this so openly and cold-heartedly. So, I put it back and walked out of the store. But imagine that: Lying so blatantly about a massacre that people across the planet had already watched and read about in the news media.

That was the reality of China in the early 1990s, and especially where Tiananmen Square is concerned, very little seems to have changed since then.

“My desire to bring democracy to China, a seemingly far-off dream, remains strong,” reflects Wang Dan, one of the student leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations. “The Chinese government has erased the Tiananmen massacre from its history books. Any mention of it on social media is considered subversive. Yet I try to reach out to younger people, sharing my experiences and keeping the memories alive.”

He is not alone. Many others in the Chinese diaspora having been doing exactly the same thing over the last 30 years.

Back in 1990, just one year after the Tiananmen Square massacre, Chinese-American musician Philip Woo boldly assembled some of the biggest names in the world of music in the United States to produce a video single titled “Song for Tian An Men Square”. It was Woo’s way of channeling outrage and expressing solidarity with the persecuted democracy movement folks in China, half a world away. The video was reportedly shown on the MTV music channel in the USA.

Woo today is based in Tokyo, Japan, and while his all-star protest video in the U.S. is mostly forgotten now (I still keep the original VHS tape release), it nevertheless remains part of the testament to a time, not so long ago, when the world watched on and held its breath as a people, hungry with a desire for freedom, rose up in great numbers with hope for a better future — but then were crushed by the merciless power of the state.

Thirty years on, the ghosts of those who both survived and perished at Tiananmen Square still haunt the hardline government of China and its insatiable appetite for ever bigger economic conquests around the world. Tiananmen Square will not be forgotten, nor will the ideals of those Chinese of that generation who stood up defiantly against the forces of oppression and corruption, and in so doing, represented the best of what lies deep within us all in the human family.

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