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Wednesday, 4 June 2014

China, South-Africa and the Chinese (in)ability for honest introspection: Tiananmen Square, 25 years later

I was just 23 years old, when the events in the neighbourhood of Tiananmen Square in Beijing eventually unfolded, after a six weeks period of massive student protests between mid-April and early June of 1989.

The second half of the eighties were the optimistical and hopeful years after the detente in the relations between the former Soviet Union and the United States. The days of ‘glasnost’ (i.e. openness)  and ‘perestroika’ (i.e. change) in the Soviet Union, under the inspirational leadership of Chairman of the Supreme Soviet Mikhail Gorbachev. What we didn’t realize yet in those days, was that the Soviet Union and the whole communist Eastern Block would cease to exist within a few years. Nevertheless, the air in Europe was filled with the scent of hope for a more peaceful and better future.

In April 1989, the student protests on Tiananmen Square emerged. They were allegedly triggered by the sudden death – of a heart attack – on 15 April of Chinese general Hu Yaobang, who had been soft on earlier student protests in 1986 and subsequently had been discharged from service as a consequence of his displayed softness against the protestors.

Increasing numbers of students, university personnel and inhabitants of Beijing – some sources speak of more than a million protestors – and an increasing part of the Chinese population elsewhere, participated in these protests against the domination of the Communist Party (i.e. ‘the state’) and in favour of more public and personal liberties: both from a economic and political point-of-view.

Although nearly everybody already expected a fierce reaction from the Chinese government and the military apparatus against these soaring numbers of protestors, a glimmer of hope arose when the Chinese leaders were initially reluctant to intervene in the protests and let the protestors continue unharmed.

In the prelude to 4 June 1989, the hearts of many people inside and outside China were filled with the hope and desire that – after the Soviet Union – this other stronghold of communism, China, would show a friendlier face to its increasingly dissatisfied population and – in fact – to the world as a whole.

[As a matter of fact: one of the most iconic moments of those hopeful days was when the unknown Tank Man (see this footage) stopped the advancing of a column of Chinese tanks, although this moment actually took place a day AFTER the protests had been stopped with massive bloodshed – EL].

However, this was going to change in the night from June 3 to June 4, when the Chinese government and military finally had enough of the protestors and decided that it was time to intervene… the hard way.  Tank battallions and thousands of soldiers and policemen advanced to Tiananmen Square and removed the protestors in the most brutal way possible.

In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, more and more gruesome details surfaced about the (numbers of) dead and wounded protestors; students, professors and civilians who either had been shot or had been crushed by the advancing tanks. Although the real death toll of the Tiananmen Square Massacre – as well as the other violent suppressive actions within China in those days – has never been revealed and can be considered China’s ‘best kept secret’, the numbers vary between 250 (official number) and several thousands (see for more info the aforementioned Wikipedia article).

And today it is exactly 25 years after Tiananmen Square... Many things have changed in China in the meantime and today’s China is uncomparable with the country that it was in 1989 – from an economic point-of-view.

Since 1989, the Chinese economic miracle has taken place, which lifted the country to being the number one exporter and even the number one economy in the world. Many entrepreneurs have developed into multi millionaires or even billionaires and the emerging Chinese middle class has been growing rapidly. The country went through a change from being a backwarded, mainly agricultural economy to becoming an industrial powerhouse, aka ‘the workshop of the world’.

But has the country really changed politically?

Have the increased political and communicational liberties of the common Chinese population been really more than a shiny façade, covering up the fact that the Chinese Communist Party still ‘wants to rule for a thousand years’? And that the power, financial wealth and corruption of the most important representatives of this party are yet absolute?!

Perhaps the remembrance (or the lack of it) of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, 25 years after the day, gives you an indication. And the energy that the official Chinese rulers put in covering up this sad day and making it impossible for the Chinese people to commemorate it and grief about it.

A  selection out of last days’ events:
  • Dissidents have been put under house-arrest, according to Belgian correspondent for VRT television Stefan Blommaert (Twitter: @StefanBlommaert);
  • Family members of deceased protestors have even been arrested, after they planned to hold a remembrance ceremony for their loved ones (again Blommaert);
  • Foreign students in Beijing received an ‘invitation’ for two free excursions to ‘the-middle-of-nowhere’ on June 3rd and 4th, in which participation was mandatory;
  • The whole Tiananmen Square, although not completely sealed off, is cautiously watched by dozens of policemen and patrol cars, in order to stop even the smallest sign of disturbance and protest;
  • Chinese government officials maintained their usual ‘omerta’ (i.e. absolute silence) about the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

    This resulted in the fact that – within only 25 years after the deed– the historical event has evolved into a non-event for many ignorant youngsters, who now have to deal with their own daily worries: pragmatic and largely unaware
    of the terrible events in days past ; 

Summarizing, the ability of the Chinese government for honest introspection is still virtually non-existent.

While using their usual bromide about ‘the fear for political unrest and domestic disturbances’, the Chinese government put every discussion about the true events happening on Tiananmen Square, and the total consequences of it, to rest… for eternity, as far as they are concerned.

At that moment, I had to think about South-Africa; that tormented country with its dark past of politicized and state-sponsored division (i.e. Apartheid) and ubiquitous violence between the white, powerful minority and the black, backwarded majority of the population. And I thought especially back at the days after Nelson Mandela had been voted into office as President of South Africa (1994).

In those days, Nelson Mandela could have easily done two things:
  • He could have ruthlessly taken revenge against the former white leaders and the white minority of the South-African population, by ‘hunting them down and smoking them out of their holes, in order to bring them to justice’, thus incorporating the risk for a full-blown civil war in the country. [I’m indeed quoting President George W. Bush here – EL]; 
  • He could have chosen for the Chinese solution to hush up the intolerable, past events in South Africa and dig a big hole to put the country’s shattered past in, hoping that everybody would forget about it and nobody would dig it up anymore: “Business as usual!” 

Instead, Mandela – as president – established in 1996 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was formed to look at all crimes committed by both sides in South-Africa: not only crimes committed by government officials from the white minority, but also crimes committed by the black leaders in those days.

The purpose of this commission was not to send the perpetrators to jail, but to establish peace, understanding and forgiveness between the different groups in South African society. So the people could forgive each other and move on towards a mutual, better future. The footage from the hearings by this commission belongs to the most impressive and compelling television I ever saw in my life.

I truly hope that one day the Chinese leadership will have the courage to set up such a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in their country, in order to investigate and publicly discuss and digest the crimes of the Chinese Communist party since the days of Mao Zedong: not to bring people to justice, but to establish peace, understanding and forgiveness among the Chinese population. 

However, June 4th, 2014 will not be that very day! 

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