On the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown by the Chinese government, guest columnist and author Wendy Liu writes about the progress China has made and the lingering dilemma of an event not fully acknowledged by the government.
A REAL man would rather break than bend, one Chinese saying suggests, like a pine. Another contradicts it, stating that a real man can both stretch and bend, like a willow. I guess it all depends on circumstances.
The circumstances are now the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown by the Chinese government on June 4, 1989. Who are the real men, or women, today? Those few who went to jail or into exile for their part in Tiananmen or the rest of us who condemned the crackdown and continued our business and relations with China?
Ding Zilin, founder of Tiananmen Mothers, whose 17-year-old son died that day, answered the question for us. She called the international community’s policy toward China “appeasement.” Are we all appeasers? Am I?
As a former Chinese citizen, with my own share of a hard time in China, I am lucky to be free. Yet one can live free in America and still not feel free when it comes to Tiananmen. One lives with a Tiananmen dilemma, or Tiananmen dual personality.
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Like many outside China, I was able to protest the Tiananmen crackdown, petition the Chinese government to change the verdict and commemorate the anniversaries. But for all these years, I have never been able to talk about Tiananmen with family members or relatives in China.
I was scolded once for mentioning the forbidden subject over the phone. To them, Tiananmen was “case closed,” controversial or not. They moved on, either accepting the government’s theory of “stability tops all” or too busy building or maintaining their new lifestyle to bother.
Look around in China, everything is new: high-rises, highways, shopping malls, restaurants, etc. Yet the forced silence over Tiananmen gives one the old feeling of the Cultural Revolution.
For years I worked on two books to be published in China, and succeeded not long ago. Part of the publishing process, however, made me feel like Google, criticized for its agreement with the Chinese government in censoring the Internet in China. The company limited search results on topics such as Tiananmen.
One of my books deals partly with Washington state’s relations with China during and after Tiananmen. Not only did I let the censor remove from the manuscript wordings such as “Tiananmen crackdown,” massacre, blood, etc., or replace them with the whitewashing term “political wind and wave,” I also censored myself by not directly mentioning Tiananmen in my author’s notes.
What would you do? Give up publishing your work in China or, in Google’s case, the world’s biggest online market? I compromised, as Google did.
Still, with strong roots and ties in China, one is always ready to cheer for China’s achievement, which is impressive: the trade giant, the “world’s factory,” the rising living standard, the increasing personal freedom, the expanding private ownership, the “more capitalistic than capitalist” ways, the “communist-in-name-only” practices and the most spectacular Olympics.
However, after all the nice things said and written, it is the unsaid and unwritten that stays with you, weighs on your conscience and gets heavier with each June.
It is hard to make any government own up to its mistakes, let alone the one-party Chinese one. But the Chinese government negated the senseless Cultural Revolution, called it a “Ten Year Catastrophe,” and rehabilitated millions of wronged Chinese, and did so when China was so much weaker. Why can’t it reassess 1989 Tiananmen when China is so much stronger today?
If they do that, Bao Tong, top aide to the late reform leader Zhao Ziyang, said in a recent interview with Voice of America in Beijing, where he was under house arrest: “… it would be the start of a real harmonious society in construction in China.”
He was right. On that, Ding Zilin and I might share agreement.
Wendy Liu of Mercer Island is the author of “Everything I Understand about America I Learned in Chinese Proverbs” (January 2009, Homa & Sekey Books).