An Eternal Fire: A Memory of June 4, 1989

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Demonstration in memory of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Photo provided by the author.

A group of students appealed the Chinese government to break its silence over the Tiananmen Square protests, earning a surprising reaction from one of the Communist Party-controlled newspapers.

This year’s midsummer tragic-comedy started with an overture on the eve of June 4, 2015. A group of overseas Chinese students, led by Gu Yi, a chemistry student at the University of Georgia, issued an open letter to their schoolmates at home to tell them about the massacre on Tiananmen Square in June 1989. It was an appeal to the Beijing government to break the lie and admit the crimes committed against the Chinese people not only in 1989, but since the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921.

  1. Blind Chess, a column by Tienchi Martin-Liao
  2. During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison til 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
  3. Tienchi Martin-Liao
  4. Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners, and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

The letter recounted the happenings of 26 years ago and named several young Beijing citizens killed in the massacre, such as 17-year-old Jiang Lianjie and 19-year-old Wang Nan. It also addressed the waves of terror in the aftermath, as well as arrests and harassment of the victims. The letter also listed their findings: the main perpetrators like Deng Xiaoping, Li Peng and other high political leaders were not only powerful but rich. The family members are becoming millionaires, if not billionaires, today. Many of them are immigrants abroad who possess foreign passports. “China is under the governance of foreigners,” the letter said.

The official newspaper the Global Times reacted promptly with an editorial headlined “Hostile forces target younger generation.” The paper stated, “Those young people have been brainwashed in foreign countries, copying the paranoid minority overseas,” that intended to “tear our society apart.” The article also announced, “Chinese society has reached a consensus on not debating the 1989 incident.”

Is that true? A consensus of collective silence? A year ago, several scholars, writers, and lawyers gathered together in a private home. They commemorated the 25th anniversary of the June 4 crackdown in early May of last year. Consequently, four participants were arrested, and the rest were ordered to police station for questioning. Everyone but Pu Zhiqiang, a lawyer, was released after a certain time.

Zhiqiang has since lost his freedom. He is kept in police custody, as the authority accused him of inciting ethnic hatred and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” offenses that could carry an eight year jail sentence.

“Do not debate the 1989 incident,” the regime commands its citizens. Otherwise, everyone could become Pu Zhiqiang.

Yet even so, the Party mouthpiece cannot escape the censorship either; the master has muzzled the barking dog. The Global Times editorial was removed shortly after its appearance because of its unintended publicity. To the annoyance of the government, this move attracted even more attention and mockery, so days later, it was reincarnated and appeared online again. Much ado about nothing best summarizes the authoritarian regime’s contradictory behavior.

Recently, the Pittsburgh-based Education Company WholeRen published a white paper on the dismissal issues of Chinese Students in the United States. The Atlantic also reported that between 2013 and 2014, 8,000 out of 274,439 Chinese students were expelled from U.S. colleges because of cheating and bad grades. These young people make up 31 percent of all international students and contributed an estimated $22 billion to the country’s economy in 2014.

The new generation of students come mostly from wealthy and powerful families. They receive the admission to the top ranking US universities because they provide superb high school records and excellent recommendations. Yet these documents are very often forged papers prepared by broker companies, a flourishing and profitable business in China, which foster the rich kids and level all of the stumbling blocks obstructing their access to education and careers.

So why does the economic elite in China spend so much money to send their youngsters abroad, only let them to be “brainwashed” by foreign hostile forces? Again, this is the typical, schizophrenic, selfish behavior of the nomenklatura in the former Soviet Union, as well as today’s China. First they ruin the bureaucrats in their own country, then they leave the sinking boat and seek paradise somewhere else.

The message of Gu Yi and his comrades not only reached their contemporaries in China, it comes also to ears of the Tiananmen Mothers who lost their sons and husbands in the massacre. The open letter comforts their hearts, but does not help their embarrassing situation. Every year, these mothers and widows receive house arrest orders from the police on the eve of June 4, forbidding them leaving their homes until the anniversary is over. Mrs. Zhang Xianling, one of the Tiananmen mothers, who lost her son Wang Nan twenty-six years ago, said that the 24 hour-police are friendly, even helping her carry her shopping bags. She described her counterparts with leniency: “Offend the law in harmony and violate the civil rights with a smile.”

Contrasting the graveyard silence in Beijing are the worldwide commemorations of June 4. The impressive vigils in Hong Kong, Australia, the U.S., and Europe show that collective memory cannot be suppressed or eliminated. Justice lives, not on paper in word form, but in the hearts of the people where it is an eternal fire.

About the Author

Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

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