Monday, June 8, 2009

20th Anniversary of Tienanmen Square

Whilst sitting in the Sky Lounge on the 28th floor of the boutique hotel Jen in Hong Kong, I find myself flicking aimlessly through "CNN Traveler", a coffee table mazagine that had no doubt been picked up by many hotel guests before me.

I flip through the pages and my eyes rest on an article about George Clooney and his work as a political activist in Darfur. I had read many articles, particularly about poverty being the drawcard for many celebrities, who somehow think that by doing charity work it gives credence to their otherwise glamorous lives. George Clooney, on this occasion, was being interviewed by Larry King of CNN and was answering questions about his time in Darfur and his experiences.

Larry King asked George Clooney, words to the effect of
"how did you feel coming back, after witnessing such terrible things in Darfur?"

George Clooney responded bluntly
"I do not want to talk about that. This isnt about me. This is about the people of Darfur."

I was overcome by the sudden realisation that for so many years, I had approached many tragedies, so many cold hard realities about the world, through introspection. I viewed September 11 fearing how I was ever going to trust the world again. I was struck by the enormity of the Boxing Day Tsunami by realising how lucky i was to be alive each day.

Nevertheless, I understood what George Clooney was referring to simply because the night prior, I had accepted the fact that there were things in the world that I was never going to understand, or draw experience from, in the way that I would like. Since coming to Asia, i have learnt that right and wrong in my eyes may not necessarily be right and wrong in anothers. I have learnt that my way of life being normal does not always mean that another's way of life as being abnormal.In Asia, I have learnt that things are not always as they seem. That things are never black and white.

On Thursday, 4 June 2009, I was surrounded by 150,000 people who wanted to show the world that, while things in Asia may not always seem black and white and right and wrong may not always be easily determined, they know injustice. Twenty years before, on that very date, the Chinese population of the world knew that an injustice had occured and twenty years on, they do not forget.

I was standing amongst 150,000 who had chosen on that night to show the world, and in particular, the Chinese Government, that despite the passing of time the Tienanmen Square incident did happen and that innocent young people died as they tried to protest against the communist government of China's rule.

To this very day, the Chinese government will not openly admit that it happened, will not allow their people to acknowledge that it happened publicly, have arrested those who have attempted to speak of the atrocity and for twenty years, they have denied the families of those killed any explanation of why it happened. The Chinese Government, to this day, want China, and the rest of the world to believe that it never happened.

Unfortunately for the Chinese Government, there is still Hong Kong. While region is under Chinese rule once more (after 100 years of being under British rule), Hong Kong still has its own self-governing democratic society - at least for another 50 years.

So on 4 June 2009, Hong Kong was the only region under Chinese rule to be allowed to officially recognise the anniversary of "the June 4 Incident".

And I was there to experience it.

4 June 1989 was the last of many protests which had occurred in China over the previous two months. A number of demonstrations had been held by chinese students and intellectuals, who were witnessing the collapse of many other communist goverments around the world, particularly in eastern europe. The catalyst for these protests was the death of a pro-democracy, anti-corruption official who was killed. Many of the demonstrations centered on Tienanmen Square, in Beijing, but large-scale protests also occurred in cities throughout China, including Shanghai, which remained peaceful throughout the protests.

On 4 June 1989, military tanks cleared Tienanmen Square, Beijing. Violently. Without mercy. Without forgiveness. Many civilians were killed or severely injured. The number of deaths is not known and many different estimates exist (allegedly as a result of the failure of the Chinese Government to admit that the event actually happened). There were early reports of Chinese Red Cross sources giving a figure of 2,600 deaths, but the Chinese Red Cross has denied ever doing so - perhaps as a result of the Chinese Government's control over the organisation. The official Chinese government figure is 241 dead, including soldiers, and 7,000 wounded. (see wikipedia). Needless to say, the violent suppression of the Tiananmen Square protest has caused widespread international condemnation of the PRC government even to this day.

When you are born into a democratic society, you do not understand what it is like to live otherwise. I have also realised though, that in the alternative, if i lived in a communist country, I too would not understand what it would be like to live otherwise either. In Australia, democracy is promoted by a high degree of freedom of political communication (note: not freedom of speech, as many often incorrectly state as being held by all Australians), and to a great degree, freedom of access to media. While the Australian people tend to make criticism of our political representatives a sport, we are given the right to choose who represents them and we place a high degree of trust in our society as a whole to ensure that issues with our political representatives are dealt with publicly, so we can all make a judgment as to who can represent us.

In China, there is no such choice. Society is run by a one-party state under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party who continues to eradicate what it perceives as threats to the social, political and economic stability of the country. It jails political oponents and journalists, regulation of religion, and suppression of independence/secessionist movements. In other words, media is not free. It is Government controlled. You do not elect your representatives. You are ruled. You know only what you have been told - through sources that control what you hear, see and read. You cannot revolt or rebel or raise questions about the way the country is run. It is what it is. Since arriving in Asia, I have been told many stories about China. When they held the Beijing Olympics, they allegedly had pamphlets handed out telling people how to dress. Homeless people were removed from the area. Factories were shut down to stop pollution. China stepped up its efforts to ensure that there was no negative press about the way China was being run. Despite the Olympics being over, they still allegedly interferred with communication channels, TV signals, block out certain channels, block certain reports by CNN, they shut down blog outlets - in fact, they recently blocked Blogger, so some of my friends who live in China cannot read my blogs any longer.

On the anniversary of June 4 Incident, China shut off the area completely. Heavy security cordoned off the entire area to ensure that no person could pay their respects. Mothers of the dead students, particularly those who had been vocal in the past about demanding justice, were placed under house arrest for over a week leading up to the anniversary. This was to ensure that there would be no group gathering to mark the event. Huge numbers of journalists reported interference whilst trying to relay communication from inside China to their countries about the event. Plain clothed police stood in front of CNN cameras as they tried to broad cast.

A week before the anniversary, at the local university, some students had tried to appeal to students to wear white on June 4, as a mark of respect for the dead. On the day, guards were at the gates of the university, allegedly stopping people from entering the university wearing white. When asked why guards were there, the university simply indicated that "there was a special function" on and that required security.

In addition, all Chinese websites that marked the anniversary were shut down on the day. In Shanghai, it was another ordinary day for its citizens. Throughout China, no one spoke of the event.

Hong Kong needed to speak to the world on behalf of its mainland brothers and sisters.

Is this right? Or is this wrong? I will not make any comment about this. Why? Because i have grown up in a society which taught me that democracy is the way to live and that it is a right that I was given when i was born an Australian. Who am I to criticise the way China rules its society? I would only be giving criticism based on my own upbringing. The only thing I could do to mark this event was to support the Chinese who want things to be different. Why? Because they have lived through it, only they know what it is like to live in, what I feel, is a repressive society.

So, I stood as 150,000 chinese took their seats on the ground, ready for the vigil ceremony to begin. I then quietly left as they lit their candles. It was not my place to mourn the dead, or to protest again the Chinese government. It was my job to pay my respects and leave them to it.

As George Clooney rightly said, it did not matter how the event related to me. This event was about the Chinese, and on this occasion, it was clear that they felt that this event should never be forgotten.


  1. you're coming to NYC? how excellent! email me if you want to meet up for drinks when you're here - would be a treat to meet you!

  2. Wow... I truly had no idea the incident was so huge!
    Thank you for sharing this Kate.