Remembering May 35th

May 35th is a special day in Chinese history that we remember today, even if the Chinese government does not.

You thought it was June already? Nicholas Kristof can explain:

When the [Chinese] government blocks references to “June 4,” the date of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Netizens evade the restriction by typing in “May 35.”

The Chinese government fiercely represses coverage of its brutal repression. Last year, China-based journalist James Fallows wrote:

to point a camera in any direction not shown in these shots [of Tiananmen Square] is to ask for immediate trouble. In particular if security forces… are in the field of view. I say this with first-hand certainty, based on experiences I will describe later when I am living someplace else…

As reported yesterday, CNN is still blacked out whenever words like “In China today….” or “Twenty years ago in Bei….” come across the airwaves.

Actual news about the massacre came out today. Ironically, it has been suppressed for years, even though it comes straight from perhaps the most repressive Chinese ruler — Li Peng — who pressed for the June 4 crackdown-massacre and later wanted to share his thinking publicly:

Mr. Li wrote in a foreword dated December 6, 2003, that he felt bound to record what happened “to serve as the most important historical testimony” about Tiananmen.

The newspaper said he wrote that the protesters threatened to send China into a new era of political upheaval akin to the chaos into which Mao periodically plunged the nation during his rule.

“From the beginning of the turmoil, I have prepared for the worst. I would rather sacrifice my own life and that of my family to prevent China from going through a tragedy like the Cultural Revolution,” the newspaper wrote, quoting a May 2, 1989 diary entry.

That view — that the protesters sought to upend Communist rule — was in stark contrast to Mr. Zhao, who argued that the students wanted reform, not revolution.

…according to a prologue by Wu Guoguang, a University of Victoria, British Columbia scholar, the memoir makes clear that Mr. Deng, not Mr. Li, led the drive to crush the demonstrations and oust Mr. Zhao from power.

“This book has clearly revealed that Deng was the proposer and decision maker of enacting martial law in parts of Beijing in 1989,” Mr. Wu wrote, “And he gave the final approval to “ground clearing” operation in Tiananmen Square on June 3.”

The Chinese government absolutely should have made real concessions and reforms. Authoritarian rule is bad, but it’s less bad the more responsive it is to ordinary citizens' needs.

But there is an “on the other hand.” The Cultural Revolution was truly horrible, so I can understand how memories of that would so frighten Chinese leaders that they would react to organized protests with deadly violence. Also, Chinese history — as taught in China today, anyhow — emphasizes the fragility of the state and the horrors of factionalism. Regardless of whether that reflects revisionist propaganda or fact, the widespread belief impacts how Chinese people view their nation.

I remain horrified by the deadly crackdown — esp. since China’s political freedoms have scarcely increased since 1989, suggesting repression has served the Party’s interests but not the people’s — but Li Peng’s comments help me better understand the Chinese government mindset, which remains even today.

Posted by James on Friday, June 04, 2010