Thursday, June 4, 2009

Erasing the Past

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the tragic events in Tiananmen Square in China. I remember watching the chaos on TV. I will never forget the image of "Tank Man" defying all rationality and standing his ground in an act of bravery and defiance I'm not sure we'll ever witness so publicly again. To this day, nobody knows what happened to him. Some suggest he was executed by the Chinese government. Others say he is still alive, hiding somewhere in China. He acted on the 5th, a day after the government cracked down violently against a massive non-violent protest, composed of many students, that had been going on since mid-April 1989. I won't rehash the whole story, but the short version is, people were mourning the death of a somewhat progressive leader and desired both economic and political reforms by the Chinese government. Over a million gathered in Tiananmen. On June 4th, 1989, the Chinese government instructed a violent military response, including firing into the crowds at the unarmed, young, idealistic masses. Nobody knows the final toll, given the control of such info in China (there is also suspicion that the Chinese government burned many of the bodies to destroy evidence), but the estimates range from several hundred dead, all the way up to several thousand.

It was a horrible event that many of us will never forget. However, that is not quite the subject of my post, nor is China, per se. What I find most alarming about Tiananmen is the massive level of amnesia about the event in China. China is not the first country to attempt this kind of whitewashing of the past. Others have attempted it as well - and succeeded quite brilliantly. While I refer to Tiananmen the most here, know that you can substitute a number of other cases in its place. For instance, there is the false belief in a historically non-interventionist US foreign policy, back from the early days (see Kagan's Dangerous Nation as a good counter - yes, really, Kagan). Americans also frequently forget "idealist" Woodrow Wilson was a staunch racist, and his efforts to keep Japan out of Versailles probably helped encourage their militarism later. We forget the Gulf of Tonkin incident, used to escalate the Vietnam War, was always a manipulation of the facts. We forget the whole 1953 US-backed coup in Iran that deposed a popular democratic leader for a brutal dictator whose harshness helped lead to the 1979 Revolution. We frequently forget about our role in strengthening militant Islam (whatever you want to call it...I'm tired of coming up with/reading different terms!) with our outright backing of the most extremist elements in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Completely forgotten facts, all withheld from the public discourse, all conveniently allowed to be forgotten. This happens elsewhere, too. Let's see...Turkey and the Armenian genocide during World War I. Pakistanis forget the cult of personality set up by national hero Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, along with his role in launching the horrific civil war that led to Bangladesh. Indians forget the completely arbitrary and undemocratic nature of Kashmir "choosing" to be part of India. Israelis forget the many acts of terrorism practiced by the Stern Gang, Irgun, and others, including the bombing of the King David Hotel and the Deir Yassin massacre. Russia today tends to forget the many horrifc acts of violence it perpetrated on Chechnya in the mid-1990s. Point being, this happens a lot, and governments are actually quite successful.

Tiananmen comes to mind because today is the 20th anniversary, of course. I was chatting with a friend in China who gave me some of the run-down on what has been happening (lot of internet sites have been blocked [this blog has apparently been blocked, too - how about that], Tiananmen Square has been shut down). Besides remembering vividly those images from my childhood, I also have walked through the space. I will say it was an incredibly eerie feeling...mostly because I was there during a relatively festive time, Chinese New Year/Spring Festival. People were out, flying kites, smiling and laughing. There were few security guards out. It seemed like a joyful place. Of course, I couldn't help but recall what happened at each spot. When we passed the Monument to the People's Heroes, I recalled that the protests had started there. As we neared the front of the square, I looked back at the massive area and visualized it being full with a million people, wanting reforms. As we crossed towards the Forbidden City/Imperial Palace, I thought to myself, Tank Man stood his ground right here. So much blood had been spilled in the area we had walked around...but nobody seemed to care. Maybe there was a peace about the whole incident?

No, not exactly. Nobody wanted to remember. Few children born after 1989 had any idea about the scale of the event. History books in China mention the the massacre with maybe a line or two, and generally as student unrest stabilized by the government. Current university students have difficulty identifying the iconic Tank Man photo. The state has effectively censored what happened. Google in China does not list results if you do a search for the event. The media is largely forbidden from reporting about what happened in those days in 1989.

Thus, not only do many not even know about the event, the efforts to clamp down have created a climate of fear amongst those who do remember what happened. There is no doubt they are afraid of speaking out. This type of climate almost certainly has played a role in a more apolitical generation of young Chinese. Can we doubt that their parents, remembering June 4th and the aftermath, steered them away from politics in order to protect them?

The Chinese government's violent response against the protesters on June 4th was, of course, a sign of cowardice and weakness. Their efforts to expunge the event from Chinese history makes that point even more clear. They are doing what others have. This is why the Bolsheviks shot Czar Nicholas and his whole family - eliminate evidence of the past. This is why the US government classifies incriminating documents, and why the press sometimes partakes in self-censorship - avoid discussing uncomfortable facts that illustrate your fallibility. And while we're at it, let's not spend too much time discussing either the genocide of the Native Americans or slavery and post-slavery Jim Crow. This is why Stalin was literally taken out of everything in the Soviet Union for many years after his death (films, artwork, you name it - pretty incredible). This is why Japanese textbooks don't give much space to the atrocities they committed from their invasion of China in 1937, up to the end of World War II.

Why should we care? Because this matters. Orwell rings so true today - who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past. If governments are able to largely erase ugly moments in their history, at least domestically, that is a frightening aspect. Part of a country's strength is its ability to see its flaws and (ideally) learn and progress from them. If countries simply censor out their missteps, they could easily repeat these mistakes, or even regress from them towards worse actions in the future. It is truly a sign of weakness to not only hide from your sins, but to actively attempt to create a climate where those sins are largely not up for discussion at home. This is definitely the case with China and the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, but is true of so many other countries as well. These actions don't increase stability, they merely stunt evolution and forward progress.

So what can we do? Remember...remember and discuss and write and talk and challenge others to not hide from these sore spots. Always keep in mind that its not about just one country (here, China), its about most countries. While some seem to forget June 4th, I sure as hell won't. I hope you won't, either. And while we're at it, I won't forget September 11, 1973; August 19, 1953; April 9, 1948; and a whole lot of other dates and events. History is political...if we don't fight to preserve it, we could lose it. The consequences would be frightening.


Anonymous said...

freedome for media!
death the censorship!
China raise above yourself and claim your freedome!

Anonymous said...

Communist China can't be trusted. It is a malicious, relentless regime. The way they treat the human being is even worse than Hitler. From Mao to the modern Jiang & Hu are horrendous.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why the Almighty God allows this type of Chinese regime to exist in this world ? I really want to know the answer, why ?

Anonymous said...

Why ? The balance & to relieve the burden of the huge population in China & this globe. Mercy God ! You get to do something !