Erasing the past, reshaping the future

June 13, 2019

How China’s government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) deal with massive protest actions can be exercises in extremes – from extreme patience to extreme brutality.

The clashes last Wednesday between Hong Kong protesters and police who used teargas and rubber bullets is nothing compared to the massacre 30 years ago at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China when live bullets and tanks were used against hapless civilians, resulting in fatalities whose numbers are said to range from a few hundreds to as much as 10,000.

Witnesses of the June 4, 1989 ruthless crackdown at Tiananmen Square gave varying descriptions of the barbaric cruelty inflicted by the People’s Liberation Army on the demonstrators, mostly young students, who were advocating democracy and seeking political reforms as they gathered for weeks in the area while authorities patiently waited for the protests to end.

But among the most horrific descriptions of the 1989 slaughter was contained in a secret diplomatic cable, made public in 2017, sent by Alan Donald, the then-British ambassador to China, who said that the students were shot and their fallen bodies were repeatedly run over by armored personnel carriers (APCs).

“Students understood they were given one hour to leave square, but after five minutes APCs attacked,” Donald wrote. “Students linked arms but were mown down. APCs then ran over the bodies time and time again to make ‘pie’ and remains collected by bulldozer,” he added.

“Remains incinerated and then hosed down drains,” Donald wrote. He said his account of the carnage “was based on information from a source who had spoken to a good friend” who was a member of China’s State Council and who “has previously proved reliable and was careful to separate fact from speculation and rumour.”

“Wounded girl students begged for their lives but were bayoneted… A three-year-old girl was injured, but her mother was shot as she went to her aid, as were six others,” Donald said, according to a news report published on December 2017 in The Independent. “1,000 survivors were told they could escape but were mown down by specially prepared machine gun positions.”

He added: “Army ambulances who attempted to give aid were shot up, as was a Sino-Japanese hospital ambulance.  With medical crew dead, wounded driver attempted to ram attackers but was blown to pieces by anti-tank weapon.” The published report said the end of the diplomatic cable read: “Minimum estimate of civilian dead 10,000.”

Many video documentaries and news accounts showing the gruesome events on the night of June 3-4, 1989 flourish in the internet, ensuring that the tragedy shall always be remembered around the world for generations to come.

Across the globe,  depictions of the unspeakable cruelty unleashed by China’s government and the CCP, then under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, on its own young citizens pleading for democracy can be accessed almost everywhere, except in China.

The Chinese government continues to do an effective job of erasing the past, of suppressing any memory of the darkest chapter in China’s modern history, that present-day Chinese students profess no knowledge of the 1989 tragedy. Intimidation is a major part of suppression, amid stories that students and teachers hinting on the tragedy are “quietly taken away by authorities, never to reappear.”

Censorship in social media is intense, especially when the anniversary of the massacre nears. Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, is heavily censored by government that targets “words and images that refer directly or indirectly to the Tiananmen Square massacre or to June 4.” But outside of China, the memory of the tragedy is kept alive.

“Tiananmen revealed the true face not only of the Chinese people, but of the CCP as well, which was exposed as a regime prepared to massacre its own unarmed citizens in order to maintain its power,” the Chinese novelist Ma Jian, who joined the 1989 protests, said. “It is both mistaken and morally repugnant to argue that the deaths were necessary to ‘re-establish order’ and guarantee future growth. Taiwan is clear proof that the Chinese can successfully combine democracy with capitalism.

Some fear another massacre might ensue if the current unrest in Hong Kong over a controversial extradition bill would ignite more protest actions to try to prevent China from encroaching on Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy.

Under the “one country, two systems” framework, Hong Kong is supposedly guaranteed the right to retain its own social, legal and political systems for 50 years following its handover from British rule in 1997. But Hong Kong’s remaining future until 2047 is being seemingly reshaped with China’s increasing assertiveness on the former British colony.