Thursday, June 04, 2009

After 20 Years, Tienanmen Square Crackdown Remains a Sensitive Issue With the Chinese

The Leaders Directly Responsible For the Massacre Have Long Since Faded From Power and Today's China Is a Vastly Different Country From 1989, But Beijing Still Rejects as Alien the Western Concept of Democracy; Meanwhile, a Year After Sichuan Earthquake, 'Disaster Tourism' Springs Up in Stricken Province


The Goddess of Democracy, a papier-mache statue modeled after New York's Statue of Liberty, towers over thousands of students protesting for greater individual freedom and democracy in Tienanmen Square in full view of a worldwide television audience on June 1, 1989, taking full advantage of global media coverage of then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's state visit to China to end the longstanding rift between China and the Soviet Union. Angered by what he saw as a "counterrevolution" against the state, Chinese Leader Deng Xiaoping ordered a crackdown. In the pre-dawn hours of June 4, People's Liberation Army tanks rolled in, crushing to death hundreds of protesters while many more were shot to death by security forces. (File Photo: Getty Images)

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EDT Thursday, June 4, 2009)


Inter-Press Service

BEIJING -- Twenty years later, Tienanmen Square is history. Or at least that is the belief shared by many on the campus of China’s top university.

Students at the distinguished Beijing University, known to locals as Beida -- once a hotbed of political activism and now at the forefront of China’s attempts to project soft power around the world -- no longer commemorate June 4, 1989, when the Communist Party ordered a military assault on thousands of unarmed students protesting for democracy at Tienanmen Square.

In the early 1990s, clandestine candlelight vigils were held on that date on the banks of Beida’s No Name Lake. Small groups of students would form circles holding candles and talking about the "Beijing Spring" of 1989 and its quest for democracy. Hidden in the dark, these gatherings would last for an hour or so before being dispersed by university security.

On summer nights in the lead-up to the Tienanmen Square anniversary, some students would play a dangerous game of hide-and-seek with the guards, throwing bottles out of their dormitory windows -- a symbolic gesture of protest against the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s decision to call out tanks against unarmed civilians in Tienanmen Square (Deng's given name, Xiaoping, is a homonym for ‘bottle’ in Chinese.)

After all, Beida is where the trouble for the Communist Party leadership started in 1989 -- with a few political wall posters and student meetings swelling to protest marches to Tienanmen Square, and continuing all through the spring with peaceful sit-ins in the square, and hunger strikes to bolster demands for political reform.


On a recent day in late May, this writer -- a student herself at Beijing University in those years -- retraced the sites of stealthy student gatherings and audacious small acts of defiance, but found neither. Beida’s youth still crowded the benches and grass around the serenely beautiful No Name Lake, but the conversations were not about commemorating what happened 20 years ago.

Buoyed by China’s sustained economic boom, which offers opportunities and personal freedoms unthinkable to their parents and grandparents, Beida’s students tend to believe today that China is destined to blaze a path different than the one chartered by the 1989 student leaders.

"In 1989 they [students] all believed in Western democracy. That is why they even had the Statue of Liberty [the Goddess of Democracy statue, patterned after the famous American landmark] on Tienanmen Square," a philosophy student surnamed Zheng told IPS. "But I think China should follow its own path of development in politics as well as economy, and not be a copycat of the West. We have done that long enough."

Such confidence is partly fueled by the success of China’s authoritarian government in delivering material goods to its people. But there are other layers too: disillusionment with the Western model of liberal capitalism during this time of global financial crisis, and newfound pride
in the country’s traditional culture -- greatly enhanced by the dazzling spectacle of last summer's Olympics here -- that is feeding a revival of the Confucian political and moral ethos.

While few of the Beida students who talked to IPS openly vindicate the bloodshed that occurred in the pre-dawn hours of June 4, 1989, nearly all of them said the crackdown was necessary to prevent China from veering dangerously off its chosen path.

"There would have been chaos, and our economic development would have suffered," said another student, Lan Pingli. "But we need many years of peace, stability and economic prosperity to be able to find our own Chinese way of political governance."


If Lan sounds uncannily like a Communist Party propaganda apparatchik, it is because she and many others among her peers believe Beijing’s form of authoritarian governance combined with a market economy is the right formula for the world’s most populous country. They subscribe to the idea that political change will come to China not by following the Western model of parliamentary democracy, but China’s own practices.

The Communist Party, which had long regarded Confucius as a feudal thinker, has in the last 20 years made a complete flip-flop, tacitly approving a state comeback for Confucianism, and even promoting it as a key aspect of an alternative political model for China.

"Confucianism has quietly come back," says Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at the City University of Hong Kong, "and the Communist leadership has been exploiting it to help fill the ideological vacuum and improve morality. It is a low-key revival, but it suits their needs to find a new cohesive force at a time when Marxism is dead but democracy is absent."

China watchers say President Hu Jintao believes this country’s rampant consumerism has left an ethical vacuum that could be filled by a return to the Confucian values of honor and decency. In a recent lecture titled "The Socialist Concept of Honor and Disgrace," he extolled Confucius’ "eight virtues," such as plain living and public service, and warned of his "eight disgraces," like pursuit of profit.

Some experts say the revival of Confucianism has broadened China’s political spectrum and could in the long run serve as a basis for a new model of governance.


"What is interesting is that now there are more options on the table than compared with the 1980s, when political evolution was viewed only as a change from an authoritarian to a democratic form of government," says political theorist Daniel Bell, author of a book on China’s new Confucianism. "In China at the moment, the spirit of experimentation is prevailing."

Yet many believe that China’s political options have actually narrowed since the Communist Party crushed the pro-democracy protests 20 years ago.

"I don’t see any serious initiative on the part of the Communist Party leadership to change the current political model," says Joseph Cheng. "In fact, since the Tienanmen crackdown, party leaders have shown less and less readiness to compromise on their monopoly on power."

Others say dressing its power in Confucian robes cannot help the Communist Party avoid accountability for the killings of untold numbers of unarmed civilians.

"Confucianism is against killing," says writer and social critic Yu Jie. "You cannot justify a crackdown like Tienanmen on the grounds that you were trying to keep the country on its own track."

The Communist Party has dismissed international condemnation of the violent crackdown and rebuffed all efforts to seek a re-examination of the events of June 1989. Beijing continues to defend the use of lethal force against its own citizens as a measure necessary for the stability and development of the country.


Meanwhile, cashing in on huge public interest in one of the deadliest earthquakes of recent history, Beijing has officially endorsed ‘disaster tourism’ as a form of economic subsidy to devastated areas. Home debris and whole sections of partially wiped-out cities and villages during last year’s massive earthquake in Sichuan province will now be open to tourists, the state media announced last week.

"There is a huge tourism market in the ruins," Wu Min, deputy director of the Sichuan provincial tourism department told the official Xinhua news agency. "We cannot block the tourists out and we also hope the tourists watch their behavior and not hurt the quake survivors’ feelings."

The severity of the 8.0-magnitude quake, which ripped through the mountainous areas of Sichuan province on May 12 last year, killing 90,000 people and the government’s initial tolerance of reports from the disaster area have generated huge interest among a Chinese public unaccustomed to official news of public suffering and devastation.

Ruins from the quake have become a draw for visitors -- attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists -- Xinhua reported. Donghekou village, where only 300 of more than 1,400 villagers survived a landslide triggered by the earthquake, is now amongst the hottest tourist destinations in the ravaged province. More than 260,000 tourists have visited the Donghekou Relics Park since it opened last November.

As a site of some of the most devastating earthquakes in modern history, China should be equipped to deal with remembrance, with consigning the pain to the past and drawing lessons. But, a year after the Sichuan earthquake, the country is grappling with to how to commemorate the dead without raising uncomfortable questions.


Chinese leaders have delivered on their promises and days before the first anniversary released the first official toll of student deaths, reporting that 5,335 children were dead or missing in the earthquake.

But officials have not provided a list of names and have refused to face up to charges by parents that corruption and mismanagement were to blame for the collapse of thousands of school buildings.

Much like Tienanmen, government officials -- fearing that pain could boil into anger and unrest -- have refused to allow parents to grieve at the sites of school debris where children perished. Ad-hoc commemoration ceremonies have been banned and civil initiatives to erect memorial stones in the earthquake zone have been quashed.

"They told me such memorial stones would label Sichuan as a disaster area and that now we should focus on rebuilding and not on commemoration," Zhong Guangmao, an artist and designer in the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu told the liberal Southern Weekly newspaper. Zhong was among the first to submit several proposals for creating public memorials in Chengdu but was refused.

But, while shying away from permanent memorials for the dead, officials have encouraged the boom of so-called ‘earthquake tourism,’ insisting this would help the economic recovery of devastated area.

Some 46 million people were affected by the 7.9-magnitude temblor, the most destructive earthquake to strike China in more than thirty years. Sichuan authorities estimate that 1.5 million people lost their jobs and land in the disaster.


The numbers of tourists that have swarmed to the earthquake zone in recent months are astonishing. According to the Sichuan Tourism Office, during the Chinese New Year holiday -- the country's biggest travel season -- more than seven million people flocked to the mountainous region where the earthquake wiped out whole towns, squashing schools, factories and homes.

The May Day weekend saw another spike of tourists -- with 2.9 million people arriving in Chengdu and heading out on specially designed one-day package tours of the earthquake zone. Such tours include visits to quake relics parks, public cemeteries where the ashes of many dead are buried, and sightseeing platforms to observe panoramic views of the destruction.

The boom in disaster tourism has received official endorsement not only from local officials but from Communist Party leaders, too. A report prepared by the Communist Party school in Dujiangyan -- one of the most ravaged cities in the earthquake zone -- has called on officials to "actively promote the earthquake tourism brand" in order to transform destruction into a "valuable tourism resource."

Some localities have even issued vouchers, encouraging residents to travel to the earthquake area as tourists and help its recovery by sightseeing and spending. The government of Macao Special Administrative Region for instance, has subsidized Macau tourists to Sichuan with vouchers of 1,500 yuan ($220 U.S.) each.

Some who worry that China lacks the courage to reflect on and preserve the painful memories of calamities see the craze of ‘earthquake tourism’ as a perturbing sign.

"We need an earthquake museum, we can not let the memory of Sichuan be buried as it happened with the lessons of Tangshan earthquake," commentator Huang Xiaowei said in the Economic Observer. "Without a proper place to remember and reflect, the pain of quake survivors is being transformed into a thing for consumption."

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Volume IV, Number 44
Special Report Copyright 2009, Inter-Press Service, LLC.
The 'Skeeter Bites Report Copyright 2009, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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