Six Four: A shift in attitudes
It’s hard to say what a “moderate” position on Six Four should be. In the early days and years after Six Four, it’s no exaggeration to say that the vast majority of Chinese were united in a single consensus: the students were heroes, and the government had behaved like fascists.
But as the years have moved on, as China’s economic and social development moved on from those early failed chaotic days… life has gone on, and attitudes have gradually shifted. I think this is perfectly understandable. Remember, the college students of 1989 are now approaching their 40s. This year’s entering class of university students were not even born during that fateful summer. The man who stood with Zhao Ziyang as he apologized to the fasting students on the square, now happens to be the beloved Premier of China.
Today, 19 years later, there’s a wide range of passionately held opinions. Many have argued that the goodness in today’s China would not exist if the student movement had succeeded; others argue the badness in today’s China would not exist if the government hadn’t suppressed the student movement. I can start by describing what the extreme positions are; these may be “extreme” in attitude, but it’s no exaggeration to say that many Chinese support each side. (Remember the “What kind of Chinese are you” quiz..?)
From those on the left, students broke the law by being on the square in the first place, and they never any intention of negotiation or compromise. They wanted revolution, and it was time to clear them off the square. Military force was the only justifiable reaction against those violent rioters and hooligans attacking PLA soldiers. From those on the right, students were protesting against an immoral and illegal government that lacked the authority to rule. Its use of force against unarmed civilians was a crime against humanity. We have plenty of videos and photos to support both sides of that argument.
It might also be a difference in perspective. Someone pointed out to me recently that the government tends to refer to these events as Eight Nine (the year), while the dissidents refer to them as Six Four (the actual clash). Why? Because the government sees the final violence as part of a long, extended (months long) political conflict that left it no other alternative. The dissidents, on the other hand, see the orgy of violence on that one night as being the one item that really matters, that really defines the government’s legacy.
I will go with those moderates who try to split the difference. It was a tragedy all around: the students were true patriots who grew out of control, but the government should have found some other way to resolve the situation. I mourn all of those who died as victims of a political game: PLA soldiers and student protesters. Hopefully, China has learned a valuable lesson about the dangers of a chaotic populist movement led by self-serving student “leaders”. I’d like to think Wen Jiabao agrees with me, but it’s sad that China still can not discuss this issue directly.
I want to talk about Hong Kong as a canary in the mine, a wind marker for Chinese attitudes about Six Four. It’s not possible to overstate the importance of Hong Kong (and Taiwan) to the Six Four movement. Hong Kong donations, Hong Kong activists played a major role in supporting and helping the burgeoning student movements. For Hong Kong’ers at large, Six Four was a proud patriotic movement that everyone supported from the bottom of their hearts. As an island that valued its British-created economic and legal freedoms, many were understandably concerned about the authoritarian Communist mainland they would be shortly rejoining. They adopted the student movement as their own. On the Chinese political spectrum, those in Hong Kong have always been on the far right. The passionate support of average Hong Kong is still remembered by many.
After the movement was violently suppressed, political attitudes toward Beijing hardened. For almost two decades, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong’ers have come out every year on Six Four to memorialize the victims of the riots. For almost two decades, calling for a public reassessment of Six Four has been a necessary part of every Hong Kong political protest. If Six Four is a scar on the Chinese psyche, then for Hong Kong’ers, it was nothing less than the loss of a limb.
But in Hong Kong, time has also moved on. 19 years after Six Four, 12 years after reunification, they’ve also been witness to the shifts in Chinese society and government. From an IHT (NY Times) report:
Enthusiasm for the coming Olympic Games in Beijing, sympathy for victims of the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan Province and growing prosperity in Hong Kong because of mainland China’s economic boom have combined to weaken the city’s once-vigorous protest movement.
Even Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the highest official of the Roman Catholic Church in China and a vociferous critic of Beijing’s human rights record for many years, has moderated his tone in the past several weeks.
Zen went further on Wednesday evening at a prayer meeting just before the candlelight vigil, although he gently mentioned a continued desire for China to apologize for the Tiananmen Square killings. “We will wholeheartedly support the leaders as they progress along the grand highway of respect for humanity,” he said.
The vigil attracted thousands of people, but the crowd appeared smaller than last year’s, estimated by organizers at 55,000 and by the police at 27,000.
Hong Kong University, which has a reputation for statistically valid surveys, found a significant shift this year in its 16th-annual survey, conducted since 1993, of public attitudes in the weeks preceding the annual vigil.
“On the assessment of China’s human right condition now and in future, optimism is at record high since the beginning of this survey series,” said Robert Chung, the director of the university’s public opinion program. “Moreover, although it is still the majority view that the Chinese government did the wrong thing in 1989, and that the official stand on June 4 should be reversed, both figures have dropped significantly compared to one year ago, probably due to the Olympic tide and the Sichuan earthquake relief.”
I think on this, the Hong Kong people can again speak for the vast majority of Chinese. This is another sad chapter of 20th century Chinese history that will likely be studied by future generations. Hopefully, those who lost their lives (both soldiers and students) will not have done so in vain, and China will become a country that deserves their sacrifice.
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