Tiananmen Square: Don’t mention the massacre

“We meet here to mourn this tragedy and to share the grief of those who have lost members of their families, their loved ones and their friends, and to express our profound sympathy to the Chinese-Australian community that has expressed its outrage at the massacre in Beijing.”
That was Prime Minister Bob Hawke speaking at a memorial service for the victims of the Tiananmen Square Massacre on June 9, 1989, five days after the Chinese army shot and killed hundreds, possibly thousands of student-led pro-democracy protesters.
The PM’s tears were streaming down his face as he spoke: “When all those who not managed to get away were dead or wounded, foot soldiers went through the square bayonetting or shooting anybody who was still alive. They had orders that nobody in the square be spared and children and young girls were slaughtered as mercilessly as the many soldiers from units there.”
I was crying too as I watched the broadcast from the Great Hall in Parliament House in Canberra after taking notes and shot-listing vision and grabs all week to write a breakout for the Sunday Program on June 9. Hawke responded to the slaughter by extending the visas of Chinese living in Australia, which eventually led to 42 thousand Chinese students being allowed to stay here. After the speech, a senior bureaucrat said to Hawke: “Prime Minister, you can’t do that.” And Bob Hawke said: “I’ve done it.”
One of those 42,000 students, Ling Xie, is now 59, and lives in Sydney with a 35-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old grandson, and still has only gratitude for Bob Hawke. She told The Weekend Australian: “We were so grateful – I am still so grateful.” She said her life was changed forever thanks to Mr Hawke: “. . . the massacre really shocked everyone and [everyone] realised China’s political system would not change, and now here we were living in a democratic country and we did not dare go back at the time.”
Ben Shan of Melbourne was one of the student protesters at Tiananmen Square and said he would love Hawke forever for allowing him to come to Australia in 1990: “My group of Chinese will love Bob Hawke forever. He was a great Australian. I am very sad about losing him.”
I also wish Bob Hawke was still alive because the People’s Republic of China might have at least listened to him about its so-called human rights record. In an Agence France Presse (AFP) article in The Australian, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticised claims by Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe that the Tiananmen massacre was the correct policy to end “political turbulence,” and the state-run Global Times called the crackdown a “vaccination against any major political turmoil in the future.” Secretary Pompeo denounced “new waves of abuses,” saying: “Over the decades that followed, the United States hoped that China’s integration into the international system would lead to a more open, tolerant society. These hopes have been dashed.”
The Chinese embassy in Washington replied, claiming the US statement was an “affront to the Chinese people” issued “out of prejudice and arrogance … Under the pretext of human rights, the statement grossly intervenes in China’s internal affairs, attacks its system, and smears its domestic and foreign policies.”
Meanwhile, back in Tiananmen Square, police were checking the identity card of every tourist and commuter leaving the subway nearby, banning foreign journalists from entering the square, and warning them not to take photographs. The Chinese Communist Party detained several activists in the days before June 4, and as in the past censored any talk of the protests and the massacre. The people never learned what really happened or are afraid to discuss it. Rose Tang, an activist and survivor of the massacre, now lives in Brooklyn and told the Wall Street Journal of going back to China for a high school reunion in 2013, and how she was saddened to discover some classmates had turned against the cause — one in particular: “She said, ‘Thank goodness the students were killed back then in exchange for today’s prosperity and stability’.” As a pro-democracy protester from 1989, Tang now says: “It is my duty to tell the world about what happened that day.” Tang added: “There are many people who want to stand up, but they need more encouragement.”

There is more encouragement in Hong Kong, the only place on Chinese soil where massive protests against the Beijing government are tolerated. On Tuesday, June 4, 180,000 people remembered the victims of the crackdown with a vigil in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, holding candles calling for an end to one-party rule and justice for the mass killing of pro-democracy protesters thirty years ago. (Photo of Hong Kong vigil above: Justin Chin, Bloomberg News). The Wall Street Journal’s Natasha Khan reports on the anger among the locals in the former British colony over dwindling freedoms, especially a proposed extradition law that would allow suspects to be sent to the mainland to face trial in China’s difficult legal system – even more difficult than Australia’s unauthorised disclosure and secrecy laws which threaten press freedom. A 53-year-old Chinese woman from the province of Shanxi, now a teacher in Cambodia, attended the vigil for the first time. “It is so encouraging to arrive in Hong Kong and witness this,” said Ms. Gao, who three decades ago participated in the student movement in her hometown. “The blood of our generations did not go to waste.”
Former China Correspondent for The Observer, Jonathan Mirsky, who was brutally beaten by the PLA on the day of the massacre, remembers the bloodbath: “I saw the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Beijing’s vast Tiananmen Square mow down doctors and nurses from the Peking Union Hospital medical school. In their white smocks and caps they had climbed out of an ambulance to aid the mothers and fathers of students shot in the square a few hours before. The parents wanted to find either surviving children or their dead bodies. A column of smoke rose from the square where the parents feared – as I did – that the bodies of the dead were being burned.”
One of the most powerful and poignant documentaries about the massacre was ABC’s Four Corners episode this week, Tremble and Obey: How the Chinese Communist Party Crushed Democracy, featuring student leaders, ABC reporters and crews with vision and audio from 30 years ago and expert commentators. This is what Rowena Xiaoqing He, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, told Four Corners: “In 1989 we were so young, and we experienced such a violent killing, and witnessing or watching it. And it’s literally the killing of your peers, of your generation. But we were not allowed to openly shed a tear or light a candle for the dead. And we carried this wound, this open wound, up to today, 30 years later and we still are not allowed to openly talk about it. On the surface, Tiananmen seems to be totally removed and irrelevant to the total reality of a Rising China, but Tiananmen remains the most taboo and most sensitive subject in China today.”
Max Uechtritz, an ABC foreign correspondent in 1989, told Four Corners the story of the Tank Man (Tank Man Photo at the top: Jeff Widener/Associated Press) who stopped a column of tanks that day: “There was a man holding shopping bags, standing in front of the lead tank. This man then clambers up onto the tank, squats down, and starts remonstrating with the tank commander. He then gets back down again. And every time the tank tried to move, the man, with his shopping bags in each hand, jumped in front of it.
“Four or five other people, fearing for his life obviously, rushed him off, took him over to the side of the road. He disappeared the other side, and disappeared forever. He took a stand, became one of the most iconic images of the 20th century, of all time. He has been an inspiration to so many people. The most obvious thing to think is that he was caught, captured, and killed, but we’d all like to think that he melted away into the crowd, and he’s still out there, somewhere safe.”
You Weijie, a student protester, now a retired accountant in Beijing, told Four Corners what it was like after the massacre: “The Government started thoroughly persecuting their own citizens at every work unit, every institution, every school, every department, asking what they have been doing in the last few days, if they took to the street and so on. The Government not only thinks that it was right to kill their own citizens, but also lets the citizens live in the fear thinking that everyone should accept the June 4th Massacre. If someone was found out to have participated in the movement through surveillance video, then their life would be in danger.”
But her story is a particularly sad one: she was told on June 4 by a young man that her husband had been wounded and was taken to hospital by locals. “I was with him for two days and watched him slowly die. When my son arrived at the hospital his father already passed away. I think for my son and for my family, it was a catastrophe. I was really sad.” She raised her son, then four, trying to shield him from her sorrow and frequent visits from authorities. You Weijie told the ABC how much she misses her husband: “For so many years, I have a wish, I want to present flowers to him to show my grief, but that is impossible, because whenever it is around this period, I am tightly watched, I am prohibited from going to Tiananmen Square to do this.”
The last word should go to You Weijie: “The government cannot escape with silence.”

2 thoughts on “Tiananmen Square: Don’t mention the massacre

  1. Tom, This may sound trite, but for some reason your blogs are getting better and better. This one, in my opinion is one of your best. Keep it up comrade, you’are on a roll.

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