Saturday, March 21, 2009


by Philip J Cunningham

The June 4, 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, the exact statistics about which remain ambiguous, was unambiguously a tragedy for China, all the more painful because it was self-inflicted. From crushed bystander to lynched soldiers, from fearless young firebrands in the streets to frightened old men in the watchtower, the ill-conceived crackdown wounded the country as a whole.

Yet when people ask how many people died at Tiananmen, or want to learn more about the victims, it almost goes without saying that the question is about the people the Western media regards as having been “on our side.” PLA soldiers don’t really figure into the equation, they’re the anonymous “bad guys,” at best pawns in the background.

But last week, the silence from the other side was dramatically broken. Zhang Shijun, a former PLA soldier who was involved in the bloody June 4, 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square has courageously stepped forward to demand a government inquiry into a pivotal event that remains all but taboo in China even 20 years on.

Mr. Zhang’s bold open letter to China President Hu Jintao is likely to make life difficult for him –he was reportedly arrested shortly after talking to reporters-- but if it doesn’t, it may help start a dialogue that can rectify that imbalance and round out our understanding.

It's hard to think of a grouping with more right to righteous anger than the Tiananmen Mothers, and their dedication to their lost sons and daughters is powerful and inspiring. But there are other grieving parents; families broken by June 4, 1989 that rarely get mention when the anniversary of the epic battle for “democracy” gets trumped up and trumpeted in the West.

Scores of PLA soldiers died too, mostly young men similar in age to the protesters they were ordered to quell. The hapless provincial soldiers, even if made of "lesser steel" in socioeconomic terms, even if denied the opportunity of university education and the privilege of residence in the capital, were kids with parents and grandparents too.

While the desire to take sides is understandable, and the need for closure –even outright denial-- is emotionally compelling, the complex truth of the tragedy has been too long obscured by speculative reporting and heated partisanship on the “democracy” side, countered by government secretiveness and a chilling silence on the other.

In political terms we might be tempted to dismiss Zhang Shijun and other soldiers as having been tools of an authoritarian state, at least partly culpable, to the extent that they were reckless and cruel in the way they carried out orders, and given the long view, we might even be tempted to write them off as being on the wrong side of history. But Zhang’s bid to be part of the conversation changes all that. Were the soldiers not fellow citizens, brought into the world with hopes and dreams of their own?

Given the mutually exclusive sympathies characteristic of violent events, acknowledging the view, let alone the hurt of the “other side,” especially if it is the “wrong side,” is in itself strangely controversial.

This was evident in sharply contrasting reports on the violence in Tibet last year. Beijing government claims, while fairly well documented, focused on Han victims, while Tibetan exiles made difficult to verify claims about violence against ethnic Tibetans, while downplaying Han casualties of the street riots.

The Orwellian state of affairs at present is that Tibet is now in lockdown and the information flow curtailed. Who’s to say what is or isn’t happening?

In the case of Beijing in 1989, civilian deaths, documented in the hundreds before information controls went into effect, were horrendous, all the more so because the introduction of war weapons into the mix was so incendiary, so unnecessary.

Bad policy had deadly consequences, some of it resulting in the “horrific scenes,” mostly involving unarmed civilians, that ex-soldier Zhang alludes to. But scores of soldiers were also killed on June 4, ripped to pieces, burned and bodily defiled, when a badly cornered crowd erupted in uncontrollable anger, as Tiananmen Square was retaken by force.

The image of a man standing in front of a tank eventually became a worldwide icon of defiance, but actions far more defiant, far more insane and far more brave and craven happened the day and night before that famous photo which was snapped. Leading up to that photographic moment of equipoise, tanks were trapped and thousands of vehicles torched and soldiers beaten to death by an unarmed but inconsolable mob.

The bells of Tiananmen will toll again this year to mark the twentieth anniversary of the tragedy. In China proper, the metaphoric peals will most likely be greeted by the usual deafening silence, a product of state-enforced prohibitions, inadequate information flow and popular indifference. What few commemorations do take place, in liberal Hong Kong and at gatherings overseas, are likely to be partisan in character, excluding the plight of the fallen soldiers.

Today, with dizzying death tolls being played up or played down or spun around in plain sight due to the machinations of propaganda and partisanship, we should remember that the tolling bell that John Donne famously made allusion to; we suffer not just from the loss of the people we identify as being on our side, but from the loss of others, too.

June 4, 1989 produced no winners, but reconciliation is possible with an open airing of the truth. There are political risks to be sure, especially at a time of economic downturn and rising unrest, but the sooner China has the conversation it needs to be at peace with itself, the better for everyone.

The author, who worked for BBC in Beijing during May and June 1989 is a visiting fellow at Cornell University and author of a memoir entitled Tiananmen Moon, to be published this May by Rowman & Littlefield.