Tiananmen Square: futility of revisionism

Chinese authorities carried out aggressive detentions ahead of the 25th anniversary  of the Tiananmen Sqauare massacre, with New Tang Dynasty news agency reporting 70 journalists, dissidents and rights defenders arrested over the past month. Blogger and journalist Gao Yu went missing at the end of April, and Beijing activist Hu Jia has been under house arrest for more than three months, after announcing his intention to hold a vigil in the square on the June 4 anniversary, in defiance of authorities. The Wall Street Journal's China Real Time blog notes that tens of thousands attended a vigil in Hong Kong, but the New York Times' Sinosphere blog reports that Tiananmen Square itself was so thick with security patrols and checkpoints that even the usual throng of tourists was down to a mere trickle. A tantalyzing report in the Globe & Mail says that a small group of black-clad citizens did manage to walk through the square in a silent, symbolic protest.

The absurd security measures speak to the ultimate futility of trying to supress the truth this way. The virtual shutting down of the square was itself a perverse and paradoxical commemoration of the massacre on the part of the authorities. Presumably, it caused some children to ask their parents what all the police patrols were about, ironically facilitating the passage of historical memory on to the next generation—even if those children received only veiled and guarded answers. If they were hushed by their parents, this would only serve to heighten their curiosity, and plant seeds of doubt about the morality of the system.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay protested the pre-emptive arrests, urging China to relax the anniversary-related media restrictions and instead "facilitate dialogue and discussion as a means of overcoming the legacy of the past." She also called for an independent investigation into the massacre. Framing this taboo demand in terms flattering to the Beijing regime, she stated that "learning from events of the past will not diminish the gains of the past 25 years, but will show how far China has come in ensuring that human rights are respected and protected." (Jurist)

If China has advanced towards less grandiose methods of social control than army massacre, it is due to the development of the more measured repression of police riot squads—seen most recently in the anti-pollution protests in Zhejiang. Can this really be considered a "gain" for human rights?

More problematically, the White House also weighed in, saying in a rare statement on the massacre: "The United States will always speak out in support of the basic freedoms the protesters at Tiananmen Square sought, including the freedom of expression, the freedom of the press, and the freedoms of association and assembly. These freedoms—which are enshrined in the US Constitution, the Chinese Constitution, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—are values the United States champions around the world." There's a certain irony to these words when Wall Street has been locked down by police nearly as thoroughly as Tiananmen Square in response to the Occupy movement and perceived terrorist threats. Tellingly, the statement also applauded "China's extraordinary social and economic progress over the past three decades." (Reuters) Of course that "economic progress" has meant a great leap forward for China's new bourgeoisie at the expense of the poor

The US is exploiting the dead of June 4, 1989 to score propaganda points in the New Cold War—but also reaps rewards from the immiseration of China's poor in the form of cheap consumer products. Rare events out of the ordinary at Tiananmen Square in the years since 1989 are disturbingly telling. In 2000, Falun Gong followers filled the square for their meditation rituals before meeting their own wave of harsh repression—although popular dissension being exploited by an obscurantist and cultish sect rather than a conscious pro-democracy movement was itself a kind of grim victory for the regime. More ominously, Tiananmen Square last October saw its first act of terrorism, as apparent Uighur militants carried out a suicide attack. More such attacks have followed elsewhere in China—and some apparently by ethnic Han upset over official corruption, not separatist Uighurs.

The hyper-security in Tiananmen Square speaks to well-grounded fear of a social explosion on the part of China's rulers. If this occurs, progressives in the West will have to decide whether they stand with the oppressors or the oppressed in China. We hope that few will be confused by the inevitable opportunistic rhetoric from Washington.

  1. Hong Kong legislative council occupied

    Just three days after the massive Tiananmen Square commemoration in Hong Kong, the chambers of the city's Legislative Council were stormed and occupied by some 50 protesters opposed to a new development plan in the northeastern New Territories. The occupation came as the Council's Finance Committee discussed the HK$340 million plan, which would displace hundreds of local residents. The elderly among the protesters held banners reading "Protect our homes." The groups that organized the action, including the Land Justice League and the Kwu Tung North community coalition, said their move was a "last resort" to force the government to scrap the plan. "The residents have tried all means, hoping the authorities will withdraw development in the northeastern New Territories…but the people in power were not moved," they said in a statement. The protesters ended their occupaiton at midnight, but vowed to return if the plan isn't dropped. (SCMP, June 7)

    Another entry in the growing global convergence in protest movements between issues of class justice and issues of urban ecology and control of space.

  2. Cyber-attacks target Hong Kong democracy drive

    Democracy activists in Hong Kong are holding an unofficial referendum on the politically charged question of who should get to choose the city's next leader in elections planned for 2017. But cyber-attacks disrupted the online voter registration system and forced organizers to extend the vote an extra week, until June 29. Referendum organizer Benny Tai, a law professor at Hong Kong University, blamed Beijing for the cyber-attacks "as they have a very strong stance against universal suffrage in Hong Kong."

    The referendum is the latest move by the civil disobedience movement called Occupy Central, co-founded by Tai. Central is the key business and financial district on Hong Kong Island, and activists pledge to "occupy" (or congest) it if the official election plans do not meet their demands. Beijing has agreed in principle to universal suffrage in the race for the city's chief executive, but insists that only a committee of 1,200 appointed loyalists can nominate candidates. Democracy activists seek a ballot open to all. (USA Today, June 19)

    A New York Times story of Feb. 18, 2013 identified a People's Liberation Army base on the outskirts of Shanghai as the headquarters of Unit 61398—responsible for cyber-attacks  abroad. The report cites findings by both the private Mandiant Intelliegnce Center and the US government's National Intelligence Estimate.The hackers were informally known to their targets in the US—mostly industrial and military installations—as the "Comment Crew" or "Shanghai Group." It is presumably the same Unit 61398 that targets activists in Hong Kong—and, according to Students for a Free Tibet, the Tibetan exiles and their supporters.

  3. Thousands rally, hundreds arrested in Hong Kong

    After a massive protest in Hong Kong to commemorate the 17th anniversary of the former British colony’s return to Chinese rule July 1, police made widespread arrests as protesters refused to clear the city’s financial district. Miore than 500 were detained. Organizers estimate 500,000 people joined the rally called to demand full electoral freedom. (Real Time China, China Digital Times)

    China Worker asserts that Hong Kong's social inequality has widened since the 1997 handover. One in three elderly people in Hong Kong live below the poverty line—one of the highest elderly poverty rates in the developed world. Other groups also live in extreme economic hardship. A quarter of all Hong Kong’s children do not get three meals a day.

    At the same time, the ranks of the city's millionaires rose 22% in 2013 alone. Li Ka-shing, the world's 8th richest man, recently upbraided some global wealth studies that had underreported his wealth by some 40% for the past decade, overlooking oil and gas interests that he owns in Canada. Li is said to be worth HK$248 billion.

  4. Democracy toad for Beijing?

    What are we to make of this? Last year's Tiananmen Square massacre anniversary saw the "big yellow duck" Weibo meme, with the image of an inflatable yellow duckie becoming an unlikely symbol of remembrance and democracy as a means of evading censors. Now Shanghaist reports that days after artist Florentijn Hofman's giant yellow duck mysteriously disappeared during a rainstorm in Guizhou, images started appearing in Chinese social media of a giant inflatable orange toad floating in the waters of Beijing's Yuyuan Spring Park. The below Tweet from Chris Buckely of the New York Times' Sinosphere blog states that the toad appears in this image with a pro-democracy message. Is this photo-shopped or real, and who is behind it, and how are they getting away with it? We're at a total loss. Chris, are you going to run some real journalism on this? Anyone?

    1. Context on Beijing toad

      A July 25 article in China Daily provides more context:

      Guo Yongyao, chairman of Ningbo Jinluban Carpentry Co, designed the toad in December and said his initial intention was to compete with Western art and raise funds for the protection of cultural relics.

      Based in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, Guo is a carpenter with an enthusiasm for traditional Chinese art.

      He said his idea of designing the toad was to make youngsters at home and overseas aware of Chinese culture.

      "The Rubber Duck received a warm welcome in Chinese cities and so should Chinese art," he said. "I am not doing this to draw attention to myself. I hope the toad's appearance can focus public attention on protecting our traditional culture and relics."

      In Chinese culture, the toad is regarded as a creature of good fortune and usually appears as a three-legged animal in works of art.

      The 22-meter-high golden toad, which stands on a piece of green lotus leaf with a diameter of 33 meters, floats on the lake in Beijing's Yuyuantan Park. Immediately after its public appearance, it drew both criticism and questions.

      Yeah, our question is whether the pro-democracy message in the image above is real or photo-shopped. Apparently, you have to buy tickets to see the toad, with all proceeds going to the China Culture Relics Protection Foundation. The closest thing we can find online is a Chinese World Cultural Heritage Foundation.

  5. China: police killed in local uprising

    Don't think China is on the brink of a social explosion? The Filiming Cops website just noted an April 19 report from Revolution News:

    At least 4 Chengguan, the most hated police-inspectors in China, were beaten to death by angry people in Cangnan County of Wenzhou City, Zhejiang Province (located in the industrial southeast), after they killed a man with a hammer. The police-inspectors hit the man with a hammer until he started to vomit blood, because he was trying to take pictures of their violence towards a woman, a street vendor. The man was rushed to hospital, but died on the way.

    Thousands of angry people took to the streets, surrounded the police-inspectors in their van, attacked them with stones, bats, and beat them to death. People were shouting that the police-inspectors be killed on the spot for what they did: “Kill them! Kill them!”

  6. Jiang Zemin and Beijing ‘democracy toad’

    The passing of Jiang Zemin has shed some light on the mystery of Beijing’s “Democracy Toad.” The China Story blogs:

    In the late summer of 2015, observant Internet users noticed the uncanny similarities between a large, cartoonish blow-up amphibian, a ‘toad’ 蛤蟆, floating on the lake at the Summer Palace, and the former president, Jiang Zemin, with his characteristic thick, black spectacles and high-waisted pants.

    The initial commentary was mocking and much of it was censored. But instead of fizzling out, it blossomed into a meme called ‘toad worship culture’ 膜蛤文化 as ‘fans of the toad’ 蛤丝 gathered on WeChat, Weibo online community Baidu Tieba (Baidu Paste Bar), and Q&A website Zhihu to share their favorite quotes, memories, and pictures of the former leader.

    Perversely, it appears that Xi is so bad that dissent is taking the form of nostalgia for Jiang, who imposed the authoritarian post-1989 order. While Jiang’s faction was notoriously on the outs with Xi, let’s not forget that he faced criminal charges abroad for human rights abuses…

    Still, there is precedent for this that must be worrying Xi. In 1976, dissent against Mao took the form nostalgia for Zhou Enlai. And then in 1989, dissent against Deng took the form of nostalgia for Hu Yaobang, ultimately leading to that year’s pro-democracy protests…