By Chang Ping, published: July 8, 2014
On June 4, Deutsche Welle published a piece by its China correspondent, Frank Sieren, titled: “From Tiananmen to Leipzig” (German, Chinese translation). In this article, Mr. Sieren takes an inventive angle on the bloody act which took place twenty five years ago in Beijing. In angry protest, a number of Chinese advocates, including student leaders Wang Dan and Wuer Kaixi, human rights lawyer Teng Biao, and the group Tiananmen Mothers, have issued signed statements. What follows is my attempt to explain what prompted this outcry, and to explore the issues at hand with Mr. Sieren.
Mr. Sieren writes that “We would perhaps never know what happened twenty-five years ago in Beijing,” and that “for those in the West to unilaterally exaggerate the facts in their description of the incident helps no one. To do so would be as shameful as the ongoing silence of the Chinese government about the 1989 incident.” He calls for “a pragmatic and fair assessment of Tiananmen.”
The Chinese Communist Party itself has never denied the fact that the army, doing its bidding, drove tanks onto the Square and streets of the Chinese capital, to butcher peaceful student and citizen demonstrators. Media around the world, including Deutsche Welle and the Party paper People’s Daily, as well as the memoirs of Chinese leaders such as Zhao Ziyang, Li Peng and Chen Xitong, have left us with a vast body of documentary evidence. What is more, Tiananmen Mothers, student leaders and participants are for the most part still alive; over the last quarter-century, they never stopped seeking accountability for these crimes.
Let us be clear on one point: when Chinese advocates call for making the facts of Tiananmen public, it’s not because they “do not know what actually happened.” Rather, they are fighting against the government’s cover-up, distortion and dilution of truth. One of the goals of those responsible for the massacre is keeping the theory that “the truth can never be known” in circulation. This is precisely why each of the last twenty-five summers in China kicked off with a crackdown: a large number of dissidents are rounded up and kept at home or in prison, and censorship keeps such a stranglehold over the Internet that euphemisms,cleverly wrought and thickly veiled allusions, and even the vaguest associations to the massacre are choked off before reaching the digital ether. The expanding economic might of the Chinese government has also persuaded some international media to self-censor in their reporting.
Under those circumstances, it is little wonder that Tiananmen Mothers, banned from mourning their loved ones, or those driven into exile for pursuing the ideals of democracy, or ordinary Chinese who, contending for justice, must live with constant lies and fear, are outraged when they see Tiananmen inaccurately reported by the Western media, and the Chinese government portrayed as wronged, misunderstood, and in need of a champion.
What is especially important to note is how countless Western journalists strove with all the means at their disposal to shed light on what happened. For their pains, they were interfered with, blocked, harassed, threatened, beaten and even jailed. If there be inaccuracy in Western reporting of Tiananmen, by and large it can only be attributed to the news blackout imposed by the Chinese government itself.
What protesters find hardest to swallow is that, on the one hand, Mr. Sieren declares “we may never know what happened,” demanding that in accordance with Western “concepts of law and justice,” observers strive to distinguish between “momentary negligence and deliberate act, individual culpability versus group collusion and, above all, avoid guilt by association;” on the other hand, assuming both omniscience and omnipotence, he sees fit to pronounce the last word on the incident: “Indeed, 1989 is a passing lapse in the history of New China.” (In the German version, this statement was deleted after the article was first published, but remains in the Chinese version.)
Such statements exhibit sheer ignorance of contemporary Chinese history. From the Anti-rightist Campaign, the Cultural Revolution, to the Tiananmen massacre and today’s “stability maintenance,” or rule by secret police, Chinese Communist rule been both consistent and continuous. Even Xi Jinping, the new President, emphasizes that in no way can the first and last thirty years of the Party’s performance “be cut off from each other or set up as opposites”; no disavowal of what the Party ever did will be allowed. During this reign, man-made catastrophes never stopped, where even official records show that tens of millions died by violence. Not a single one of these disasters can be termed “a passing lapse.” Rather, they are the inevitable outcome of unfettered autocratic power and the consistent practice of quashing all opposition. The Tiananmen massacre is but one instance of this take-no-prisoners approach. Taking a page from the CCP’s verdict of the Cultural Revolution as “Mao’s error in his twilight years” and pegging Tiananmen as “a passing lapse in the history of New China” may be ingenious, but frankly is rather dated as far as tropes go.
Mr. Sieren, in quoting from East German official Zubovsky’s memoir, paints both Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin as distraught and decisively penitent over their “passing lapse.” Zubovsky recalls that “I was shocked by (Jiang’s) admission of the weakness in the leadership…Jiang never called the demonstrators counterrevolutionaries, but rather misguided students.” He also quotes former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, self-declared close friend of Deng’s who defended the Party’s Tiananmen decisions several times, as saying that “Deng never gave Schdmit the impression he would make the same mistake again. His overriding concern was how to return China to the path of opening up to the world.” This assertion does not sit well with the fact that the Chinese government never let up its brutal treatment of dissidents.
Not only did he distort China’s history, Mr. Sieren also aired some exceptional views on German reunification. To me, it is undeniable that Tiananmen shocked the world and helped to dispel illusions the people of East Germany may have entertained toward their Communist dictators. The students and ordinary citizens in China made a significant contribution to the changes which transformed the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, ending the Cold War’s global threat. However, according to Mr. Sieren, peaceful reunification was mostly dependent on the attitude of East German and Chinese leaders, highlighting that “the effect of Jiang’s tone on German reunification cannot be underestimated.” In my opinion, this is grossly unfair to the East Germans who fought to the end and at great risk to their lives.
Chang Ping (长平), former chief commentator and news director of Southern Weekend. In April, 2008, Chang Ping was removed from his positions for the article Tibet: Truth and Nationalist Sentiments, published in the Financial Times Chinese edition. In August, 2010, ordered by the CCP Propaganda Department, the Southern Media Group banned his writings from the Southern Metropolis Daily and Southern Weekend, and the ban soon became nation-wide. Websites were ordered to take down everything written by Chang Ping. In January, 2011, he was asked to leave the Southern Media Group. He then worked in Hong Kong as the editor in chief of iSun Affairs (《阳光时务周刊》) until the authorities denied him a work visa out of pressure from the Chinese government. He lives in Germany now and is a current affairs commentator for South China Morning Post.
(Translated by Louisa Chiang)