Remembrance is Not Only a Right; It’s a Duty
Between Germany and Beijing: Tiananmen Square’s increasingly complex politics.
The vigil held in Hong Kong on June 4 for the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre was an incredible sight. Over 100,000 people came together, holding candles, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Massacre. It was moving to see so many people still keeping the tragedy at Tiananmen alive in their memory and some of the young people present hadn’t even been born when the massacre occurred.
- 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 till 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.
- 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.
Hong Kong nominally belongs to China, but fortunately it still enjoys freedom of expression and assembly, unlike mainland Beijing, where the Massacre took place over two decades ago. Even though memorials were held worldwide, the only place that lay quietly ignorant of this anniversary was the place where the tragedy actually happened–Tiananmen Square.
On June 4, the Square was heavily barricaded. Armed soldiers guarded all of the streets leading to it and police cars besieged the area. The whole place swarmed with police, security guards, and plainclothes officers. Anyone who wanted to enter Tiananmen Square had to show identification and any attempt to memorialize the “Tiananmen incident” was nipped in the bud. For example, the Tiananmen Mothers, who wanted to lay flowers at the Muxidi Bridge, where their sons or husbands had been killed, were quickly prevented from doing so.
Despite the high alert, former Tiananmen student leader Zhou Fengsuo successfully visited the square on the eve of the anniversary, though only for a short time. The very next day he was deported back to the United States, where he resides.
Another activist, Zhu Xinxin, had just enough time to pin a white flower to his shirt and take a picture before police confiscated the flower.
In the weeks leading up to the anniversary international media published articles about the Chinese government’s numerous preventive arrests of dissidents and activists. Western governments also released statements criticizing the bloody crackdown on the democratic movement a quarter century ago.
However, one particular article by the Beijing-based, German journalist Frank Sieren took a radically different approach to reflecting on June 4. In his article, published by the German broadcasting company, Deutsche Welle, Sieren attempts to whitewash the atrocities committed by the dictatorial regime. He calls the Massacre a historical “slip,” and accuses western media of exaggerating the events that took place at Tiananmen Square in 1989. In the piece he stresses:
“Over the centuries we have developed in the West a sense of rights and justice, based on obligation of proof, which decides between negligence and intent, between single and serial crimes, there is above all no related liability. We should keep this stance even when we are outraged. It is not to relativize the events, but about fairness to those who have behaved badly and still behave so today.”
His bizarre logic and ambiguous argument is, in actuality, a cowardly attempt to blanket the crimes of a dictatorial regime. There has been enough documentation of the 1989 massacre, in which the Chinese Communist Party sent out tanks and soldiers to kill more then 2,000 unarmed demonstrators. There’s been enough documentation to prove that the Tiananmen Square Massacre was not a single “slip” or isolated act of negligence; it was part of a tactical, prolonged transgression against humanity.
In the five years of Mao’s Great Leap Forward alone, over 40 million people died. Years later, Chinese citizens continued to be purged under the Regime’s incessant revolution. To describe the crimes of the Regime as mere “bad behavior” is absurd.
However, Sieren is no fool. Standing behind the Chinese Communist Party is no journalistic “slip” but a kowtow to his patron. At the time of writing this article Sieren has lived in Beijing for two decades where he and his wife own the media company Chinese Media Management Inc.
It is inexplicable why a public broadcasting station of good standing would publish such an article on the anniversary of the Massacre. In the past, Deutsche Welle has declared its mission as such: “[To] communicate the values of a liberal democracy and support respect for human rights. To promote intercultural dialogue and work to further international understanding and tolerance.” Sieren’s article represents the exact opposite of this mission statement.
In fact, days after the publication of his article, I initiated the signing of an open letter to the General-Director of Deutsche Welle, questioning the decision to publish Sieren’s controversial article. The letter was co-signed by seventy-one people, including Chinese and German scholars, journalists, and leading human rights activists such as Wang Dan, Wu’er Kaixi, and Chen Guangcheng; it argued that Sieren’s article was insulting to the Massacre victims and Chinese citizens.
In response to the letter, Deutche Welle sent the co-signers an arrogant justification.
To add insult to injury, within a week Sieren had submitted another article to strengthen his supportive stance on the Chinese Communist Party. In this article, “Fairness Instead of Anger”, he alleged that the Chinese want to forget the Tiananmen Square Massacre: “One hears again and again in China: About June 4, the next generation shall speak. Forgetting is also a freedom of the people. One should not take it from them.”
Here he presents a twisted perception of Chinese sentiments and a misaligned reality. After the devastating crimes of Nazism and the failure of Communism in former Eastern Germany, one would expect Germans to have more faculty in assessing totalitarianism and human rights abuses. But Sieren does not possess strong ethics, nor does his employer, Deutsche Welle. Instead, Sieren’s Eurocentrism has been wrongly interpreted as multiculturalism.
Forget not the murder of those 2,000 activists. It is the basic right of all people, Chinese, German, and otherwise, to remember their dead. Remembrance is not only a right; it is a duty.