Thursday, May 7, 2009

Four dead in Ohio (and a few hundred more in Tiananmen)

If you're reading this - all 3.7 of you - you're probably doing so from outside China where blogspot and blogger once again have offended what calls the "Net Nanny" and have been blocked. Cut and paste and go to " blocked, but not the Washington Post" for a more succinct explanation.

I'm using a proxy server to post - not unusual - and to access other blocked sites, some of which such as YouTube have been in the black for a couple months now. (I can get my subversive Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Daily Show fixes!) The "word on the street" (i.e. rumor, expat logic plus past experience), says Beijing is blocking sites and will block more due to jitters over the 20th anniversary of June 4, 1989 Tiananmen massacre as well as the country's 60th anniversary founding on October 1. Look for relief after October 1? We'll see.

In the meantime, our paper - State owned as it is - has said internally that it is considering running "something" on June 4. That would be very unusual. Plus or minus, any mention would be almost revolutionary as the date usually passes without note - part of what another journalist has aptly termed China's called "collective amnesia" regarding the bloodshed.

An example. A British coworker has a wallpaper pic on his office PC of Tank Man, the picture of the lone, unknown Chinese citizen holding nothing more than two shopping bags as he stands off a PLA tank. It's arguably the most famous late 20th century photo of China - outside of China. But it draws no notice by Chinese colleagues, 99.9 percent of whom have never seen it and there's no context, nothing specifically "Chinese" about it viewed on its own. And it's not as if it's "banned" here. If I type "Tank Man" into Google images, I get a fair amount of them. But there's a cultural and educational gap that, as much as pro-democracy types both inside and outside of here would like to smooth over in terms of "if they see it they will understand" logic that just doesn't jell. If our image is of Tank Man, the one they remember is what they've seen in the classes that touch briefly on the subject - a picture and brief film footage of a PLA soldier on fire as he struggles from a tank torched by protestors' Molotov cocktails. Different tank men.

Another UK journalist friend here less than a year summed it up. We spoke yesterday after he'd interviewed journalism students at China's most prestigious university, Peking University, about June 4. He was puzzled that they didn't care and didn't seem to want to know anymore than what little they did. No reason why they should, really. They're the post-'89 generation, their education has been regimented and they owe their positions as students at PKU through privilege and some talent at memorizing test answers and lmost of all ook forward to careers through the same outlets despite China's climbing unemployment figures. They're gonna risk it by crying over June 4 to to a foreign journalist? Not likely.

In the meantime, here is a repeat of a column I wrote in Hong Kong about the same syndrome, four years ago. Not much has changed.

Except for what Associated Press called ''tightened security'' around Tiananmen Square, the 16th anniversary of the massacre of course passed unnoticed last Saturday on the mainland. In Shenzhen the sky was spitting intermintent bursts of acid rain – an appropriately gloomy mode if one was seriously contemplating June 4, 1989.

I had managed though, to cobble together a minor memorial of sorts in the form of a thoroughly unscientific poll and guarded discussion at a congee restaurant with four young English speaking Shenzhen professionals. They were all 13-to- 15-years-old when the June 4 Movment bloomed and burned. Just a little older than I was when John F Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and a tad younger than I on May 4, 1970 when four American students were slain by Ohio National Guard troops at an anti-Vietnam protest at Kent State University.

''Four dead in Ohio,'' sang Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in what was possibly the last true American folk song hearkening back to the original spirit of tunes as breaking news. It was written, recorded and released to radio – and, shades of China, banned by some stations – within three weeks of Kent State.
Comparisons between May 4 and June 4 however are admittedly a stretch at best. Possibly thousands, including soldiers, died on June 4 and unlike Kent State no galvanizing protest song or photo of a 14-year-old runaway girl, arms outstretched and keening over the dead body of student Jeffery Miller was allowed to sear the tragedy into the national consciousness.

But there is the Tiananmen Tank Man photo. One of Time Magazine's Top 100 photographs of the 20th century, but not even bubbling under the Top 200 in the PRC, the last century or this. That's where I began the discussion after some nervous jokes by them about making sure our dining area wasn't bugged and that I wasn't recruiting for the Falun Gong.

''No one is very comfortable talking about this,'' said Sally (a psuedonym, as are all the names), a 27-year-old sales manager for a Sino-US joint venture company. The others, two women and a man, nodded.
I described man vs tank photo and asked if any of them had seen it.
"Maybe," said Louis, 30, a telecom engineer. "I am not clear about it. I have seen so many world-shaking photographs.''

Li, 30, a project manager who has lived in Shenzhen for seven years, was equally vague. "I am not sure."
Sally had seen it but shrugged it off as '' interesting.''
Dani, 29, was the only one who had traveled extensively outside China, including a year in Boston. "I know that picture. It is very powerful. I also watched a VCD in the US called Tiananmen. I know now that the government hasn't told the full truth because they want to cover up their crime.''
Would it surprise any of you that the man and tank picture is one of the most famous photographs of China ? More foreigners know it than they do Deng Xiaopeng.

''I am not surprised even if I don't think I know it,'' said Li. She was pragmatic. "It's like we know more about pictures of the Statue of Liberty than George Bush.''

So does June 4 have any meaning for you?

''Absolutely. It has a profound meaning. It let us know how corrupt the goverment is,'' said Dani.
Others disagreed.
"I think it was the price of trying to explore a new success. But we need to forget the past and be a bright future," said Louis.

Li, like the others, did remember radio and TV accounts at the time but still found it hard to understand what, exactly, the demonstrations were about.

''I didn't understand it then or even now. Why did the students have to bleed and parade and how come so many PLA were killed? What were they trying to fight for? I still don't understand or want to know, really.''

Sally had mixed feelings. ''The students used their blood to educate people, to try and encourage other students to do more democratic demonstrations. But after it was all over the fact that people who were there weren't able to get good jobs scared other people. I used to teach English to an older man when I was in college. He told me he couldn't find a good job in China because he joined that movement. He had to immigrate to Canada.''

It was at about that point that I thought back to a conversation I'd had with Annie, a Chinese ex-coworker of mine in Shenzhen who had been at Tiananmen Square in June 1989, though as an observer, not as a demonstrator.
From her perspective it sounded like the demonstrations were - until the soldiers began slaughtering the students - more of an excuse to party, with calls for democracy almost an afterthought.

"I left just before the trouble," she said. "My friend did not feel well and I went back to our university with her. "
But why did you go to begin with?
"I am curious about many things. I like to watch and listen. It is why I like being a reporter. I went just to watch. There were no classes, everyone was there. It was also very romantic ... is that the right word?" She laughed self-consciously.
I don't know. What do you mean, 'romantic?'
What Annie described was the frisson familiar to anyone who has spent an extended, intense period of time in a hot house environment with others bent on the same mission, whether it's producing a play, working overtime at the office or trying to overthrow a government.

"Many students fell in love there. They got engaged there. Some shouted to get married right there." She laughed again. "Some of us said these romances would not last. None did."

Did you see the Statue of Liberty?, I asked referring to the homemade, crude replica that the students had constructed.

"Of course. It was a little ugly, do you think?"

I laughed and said I liked the spirit, I said. Any American who saw it understood and applauded the spirit.

"Of course. It was very symbolic."

She seemed lost in thought then she said: "The day after the deaths, it was so quiet on our campus. No one talked. We knew something terrible had happened but no details. Silence everywhere. Empty classrooms, empty rooms, empty canteenl. No one could talk about what happened. I rode my bicycle to Beijing University because I wanted to see what it was like there. It was quiet, too. I looked up at some windows and I saw new white flowers. White flowers at windows and balconies. Do you know what that means?"

No, I don't.

"White is our color for death."

I briefly described Annie's experience to the four and they were vaguely interested, though unimpressed. She must have had good connections to have her present job was the consensus. What all but Dani agreed on was that June 4, 1989 was China's business, not the outside world's.

"It is all the people's business,'' she said, looking a little embarrassed at being the odd-person out. ''I will tell my children about it. The full truth.''

''It is only our business, China's business,'' said Louis. "I would not tell my children because I don't know the full truth. It is well known that the full truth of history is often not easy to know. So perhaps it is better to say nothing than to be wrong.''


Chuck said...

Justin, Good to see you back. I was beginning to worry. And very interesting post.

It's interesting to me because I now live in Kent, Ohio, about a mile as the crow flies from the campus of Kent State. I find myself somewhat conflicted in my now conservative state. At the time of the shootings, I occupied the ROTC building on campus in Lincoln. I marched on the draft board. I wore a t-shirt with a target on the back that said student. I certainly thought the war was wrong. I thought the killing was wrong. But I was not an activist. I was a naive follower. If I had it to do over again, I still would have thought the war and killing was wrong. I wouldn't have joined the sit-in or the march. That wasn't me then, and certainly isn't me now.

Another May 4 has come and gone in Kent. I've never been by the commons area of KSU. Plenty of others go. Some of them are activists. Some of them are followers. Some of them go to remember. None of them go to forget.

I know people who were students at Kent on May 4, 1970. I also know people who were in the guard, carrying rifles. I feel deeply for them all. Their lives have changed forever.

The questions that remain in my mind: Did it have to happen? Did it make a difference? I don't know the answer to those questions. That's what troubles me the most.

I am glad you're back, Justin.

john dunham said...

justin - can you contact me about a painting that my mom has. I cant find your bloody email


The Didsbury Digit said...

June 4th.....
1. 781 BC first recorded total eclipse in China, and
2. Zhang Zuolin President of the Republic of China was assasinated in 1928.

Tiananmen, was it really so long ago? Great blogs Shenzhen Zen really great I've been reading you for quite a while now.

Blog on my friend.