Twenty-one years since Tiananmen

4 June 2010


Today it is twenty-one years since the Tiananmen Square massacre. Like a few memorable place names, it has joined the select litany of spaces closely associated with a certain date and a certain event: Katyn, Auschwitz, Srebrinica, Hiroshima. It is sufficient for me simply to say, “Tiananmen,” and, where information is not systematically suppressed by the powers that be, everyone will know to what I refer.

The images of 04 June 1989 are as familiar as the name, and I used many of these iconic images last year in Anniversary of a Massacre. But there is a sense in which these images are too familiar. Because of the CPC’s rigorous censorship, images and information are difficult to come by. Thus we see the same images over and over again, and we become too familiar with them. Our familiarity prevents us to seeing how shocking they are.

It was therefore with considerable interest that I looked at a remarkable series of thirty large black and white images that have been published on China Gate, a forum for Chinese Americans. I have never seen these pictures previously. I have copied and reduced a few of these images and added them here; I urge the reader to follow the above link and see all thirty pictures full size. Though I cannot read the text, I am told that these pictures were taken in Beijing on 05 June 1989. The massacre had happened the night before. The next morning, a different group of soldiers, who had no knowledge of what happened the previous night, went into the Beijing. Civilians tried to stop them by telling them about the bloodshed the night before. Many officers ordered their vehicles to be abandoned and gave up their mission. Later these tanks were burned by civilians.

There was an interesting story on the BBC, Tiananmen leader’s ‘diary’ revealed, describing the publication of Li Peng’s diary kept during the events of 1989. According to the BBC story, Li Peng wrote, “I would rather sacrifice my own life and that of my family to prevent China from going through a tragedy like the Cultural Revolution.” If this is true, it gives us a fascinating window into the thinking of the CPC’s elite leaders. The fear was not of democracy per se, but of the potential chaos that might come from a root-and-branch reform of China’s political system. This could be mere ex post facto justification by Li Peng, but it might also be an authentic sentiment. The dimensions of the Cultural Revolution are little understood in the West, like the scale of violence during the partition of India, the other great civilization of Asia. This revelation of Li Peng in itself could be the topic of a long post, if not of a book.

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Note added Tuesday 23 July 2019: Li Peng passed away at the age of 90 on 22 July 2019, cf. Li Peng: Former Chinese premier known as ‘Butcher of Beijing’ dies at 90

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Grand Strategy Annex

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