Saturday, June 06, 2009

Tiananmen amnesia, indifference

Mother nature looked somewhat unkindly upon those in Taiwan who sought to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, choosing June 4 to empty herself of the long-delayed juices of the plum rain season. The 24-hour downpour did nothing to help the dwindling population of Taiwanese supporters of democracy, justice and accountability in China, resulting in a few dozens of people participating in a vigil in downtown Taipei in the evening (a far cry from the “million people” march in support of Chinese demonstrators 20 years ago).

On the political scene, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) annual address on June 4 disappointed as expected, distinguishing itself for one thing alone — the extreme carefulness in choice of words to avoid ruffling feathers in Beijing. While Ma said that “[China] must face this section of painful history and not shy away from it,” he also could not help but add that China should be praised for its economic reforms, lifting people out of poverty and for paying more attention to human rights. The latter comment was pure propaganda and goes in the face of undeniable signs that since Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) became president of the People’s Republic of China in March 2003, human rights in China have regressed rather than improved, with controls of the media tightening and security crackdowns and arrests becoming more frequent.

Muzzled by his own “see no evil” policy on China, Ma had to balance things out and mitigated the sting of his remark by lauding Beijing on different matters. Likewise, his administration was extremely low-key on June 4, choosing not to participate in commemorative events lest this “anger” Beijing. June 4 came and June 4 passed, as if the massacre — and Beijing’s continued refusal to discuss it, to admit its guilt and bring the perpetrators to justice — were not the very symbol of what is still wrong with China and why, as cross Taiwan Strait ties increase, Taiwan had fain tread with extreme caution.

Not only did China sin 20 years ago, but to this day it refuses to admit it was wrong. On the day of the anniversary, it was blocking the airing of a Hong Kong-made documentary on the massacre as well as Web services such as Hotmail, Flickr and Twitter. Foreign reporters were prevented from entering Tiananmen Square (plainclothes made ridiculous efforts to prevent CNN reporters from filming by blocking the camera view with umbrellas). Dissidents, meanwhile, were under increased surveillance, confined to their homes or forced to leave Beijing, while one of the most famous organizers of the student movement in 1989, Wu’er Kaixi (吾爾開希), was denied entry in Macau and sent back to Taiwan, where he has lived for years. Twenty years on, the No. 2 most-wanted man in Beijing’s list of 21 top student organizers could not even return to China to visit his parents, who have been barred by Chinese authorities to leave the country.

Again, not a single word of protest from the Ma administration. Progress on human rights, indeed. This is the cost of Ma’s efforts to foster better relations with China: Betrayal of one’s ideals, and forgetfulness. Judging from the lack of interest in Taiwan on the 20th anniversary of the massacre, it would not be surprising if on the 30th anniversary the event were not marked at all.

Speaking of forgetfulness, a Frontline documentary airing on Taiwanese public television on the evening of June 4 had a very interesting segment in which the announcer sat down with four students from the elite Beijing University. Showing them the iconic picture of the “Tank Man” — the lone Chinese who, holding what looks like a bag of groceries, defiantly stood in the way of PLA tanks and prevented them from joining the massacre on June 4, 1989 — the announcer asked the students what the image meant to them. “A military exercise,” one said, while another admitted she had no idea what it was. Not one student seemed to know when the picture was taken, or what it was about. Perfect amnesia or ignorance among the elite, the future leaders of the country. This is unsurprising, given that in China’s Orwellian, firewalled Internet environment, a Google search of the words “Tiananmen Square” will only return harmless pictures of smiling tourists posing in front of the square.

Sadly, there are disturbing signs that the collective amnesia that has been poisoning Chinese minds is beginning to infect people abroad — including in Taiwan. Had Beijing mended its ways, admitted its responsibility and truly reformed (as Germany did after World War II, for example), a loss of interest in the sins of its past would not be terribly dangerous.

But it hasn’t, and we forget at our own peril.

Chinese are unaware of the trauma of 1989 largely as the result of a relentless, state-orchestrated amnesia, so perhaps we can forgive those who, like the students in the Frontline documentary, know nothing about it. But there is no excuse for Taiwanese not to know or care, especially at a time of growing contact between the two countries.

(Ma Jian’s novel Beijing Coma is an excellent read on the events surrounding the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the collective amnesia that has descended on the country ever since.)


Tim Maddog said...

I watched the Frontline documentary online in April 2006, shortly after it came out, and my impression of the four students was that if they did know anything about Tank Man, they feared they'd be putting themselves in grave danger if they admitted such knowledge.

Watching it again just now, I see that one of the students whispers "89," and another one hems and haws that she couldn't possibly know what the pictures are of -- really!

And then the narrator inexplicably says, "Whatever they might have heard about 1989, it was clear that they had never seen the Tank Man picture."

It's in part 6 of the show: The Struggle to Control Information, which is a good warning about what the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) is and has been doing with the media in Taiwan.

Tim Maddog

v said...

i left a link to the petition on my youtube video featuring tankman. i made the video last november when i lost a municipal election. i was in taiwan in 89. some of us haven't forgotten.