In a March 28 speech at the Körber Foundation in Berlin, China’s president, Xi Jinping, called for historical truth-telling. He had in mind the Rape of Nanking, the massacre carried out by Imperial Japan’s forces in 1937-38 during their occupation of the then-capital of the Chinese Nationalists (the city is now called Nanjing).
“The crimes of the Japanese militarists in invading China, including the Nanjing Massacre, are historical facts that cannot be denied,” Xi said. “Recently, there has been a trend in Japan towards beautifying and denying the history of aggression, which has attracted high concern and caused alarm internationally amongst those who love peace.”
Following an official Japanese protest, foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei defended the Chinese president’s remarks, stating that Xi cited historical facts to “ensure that people always remember what happened to ensure such tragedies can be avoided in the future.”
If it’s important to remember the crimes of the Japanese Imperial Army in Nanjing, then what of a massacre that took place a mere quarter-century ago? If historic accountability is needed for Nanjing, then surely the same is true for “the June 4th Incident,” as the 1989 assault in Tiananmen Square is known in China.
Yet even as Beijing castigates Japan for “denying its history of aggression,” the censors in China continue to block Internet access to Chinese people seeking answers about Tiananmen Square.What’s more, Beijing’s propagandists go into overdrive every June 4 with official denials of the bloody use of force at Tiananmen Square. Here, for example, is the piece of sophistry China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released in June 2012 in reaction to a U.S. statement on the Tiananmen anniversary date:
The U.S. side has been ignoring the facts and issuing such statements year after year, making baseless accusations against the Chinese government and arbitrarily interfering with China’s internal affairs. The Chinese side expresses strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition to such acts.
The U.S. statement read, in part: “We encourage the Chinese government to release all those still serving sentences for their participation in the demonstrations; to provide a full public accounting of those killed, detained or missing; and to end the continued harassment of demonstration participants and their families.”
Among those still incarcerated from Tiananmen Square is 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. Liu organized and participated in the “Tiananmen Four Gentlemen Hunger Strike” on June 2, 1989. He also joined with his human rights colleagues in successfully negotiating with the military commander the peaceful withdrawal of thousands of students from Tiananmen Square, thus likely avoiding bloodshed on an even more massive scale. For this and other activities termed “inciting subversion of state power,” he remains locked up as a political prisoner in northeast China.
Tiananmen left a lasting, negative impression of China’s leaders in the outside world that lingered for years, thanks in part to the iconic photograph of “Tank Man,” the lonely, heroic figure who stood in protest in front of a column of tanks. The tanks were rolling menacingly down a Beijing street in the wake of the mass killing of students and workers in and around Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3-4, 1989. The young man stopped them in their tracks. Almost a decade later, in April 1998, Time included this “Unknown Rebel” in a feature titled Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century. (No one knows what became of the heroic “Tank Man”—some say he was executed days later; others claim he mingled with the gathered crowd and then melted away.)
Yet congressional delegations on subsequent visits to China found in university meetings that young people displayed complete ignorance of this historic figure. They assumed the man was in a street protest in Thailand, Burma, or some other Asian country. The Chinese educational system has circumvented the means “to ensure that people always remember” what happened at Tiananmen.
And who can forget the toppling in Tiananmen Square of the Goddess of Democracy, that inspiring figure of China’s hope? The statue was constructed by students from the Central Academy of Fine Arts to reenergize the movement after weeks of protests. A student sculptor has said she was not modeled after her sister, the Statue of Liberty, as this would have been seen as “too openly pro-American.”
The statue was placed in the square facing the Tiananmen Gate, casting what could be considered an accusatory glance at the portrait of Chairman Mao. This was the same Chairman Mao who once famously pledged the benevolence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) toward the Chinese people with the dictum: “The people are like water and the army is like fish.” The reputation of the PLA was forever blemished by the bloody events that occurred a few days after the statue’s unveiling on May 30, 1989, to shouts of “long live democracy!” Those shouts changed to calls on June 4 of “Down with fascism!” and “bandits, bandits!” as the statue, pushed by a tank, was toppled in a scene viewed on television screens throughout the world.
While the students prudently denied any connection between the Goddess and the Statue of Liberty, -others, including Chinese people, were certainly aware of the resemblance. So were American officials. While attending one Fourth of July party at the U.S. embassy during my mid-1990s diplomatic tour in Beijing, I noticed that a replica of the Statue of Liberty displayed for this celebration of freedom had been placed behind the chancery building out of view from any passersby on the street.
I asked a colleague why the U.S. government was hiding the Statue of Liberty, and she replied that there was a public relations problem. “People in China associate the Statue of Liberty with the Goddess of Democracy and the failed democracy movement at Tiananmen Square. We don’t want to rub the Statue of Liberty in the Chinese leaders’ faces.”
As the ghosts of Nanjing cry for righteous retribution, so also does the memory of the slain students and workers from Tiananmen Square. On the evening of June 3, 1989, an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 people remained in the square as 38th Army armored personnel carriers and paratroopers of the 15th Airborne Corps, armed with live ammunition, along with other military units mobilized under martial law, headed toward the city’s center. It was a show of force that reportedly exceeded that displayed for China’s border wars with Vietnam and India.
The civilians killed in Beijing on the night of June 3-4, according to city police, “included university professors, technical people, officials, workers, owners of small private enterprises, retired workers, high school students and grade school students, of whom the youngest was nine years old.” Estimates of the number of casualties vary widely, ranging from several hundred to several thousand.
And it was not just Chinese civilians who were fired on. The late James Lilley, the American ambassador during the Tiananmen events, recalled in his memoir China Hands that military attaché Larry Wortzel received a telephone call on the night of June 6 “warning me not to be near my apartment tomorrow.” Ambassador Lilley noted that “it was a classic tip-off. We ended up getting all Americans out of their apartments except for seven dependents. Two small children of one of our diplomats may well have been saved by their alert Chinese amah who threw herself over the children when bullets crashed through the windows.”
Through his contacts, Wortzel had learned that the Chinese Army wanted to teach the international community a lesson for reporting on the Tiananmen events from their balconies. The idea was to “close the door to beat the dog,” as the Chinese proverb states. “The PLA planned to close the door by firing on the diplomatic compound, thus chasing out the snooping foreigners, and then, in the privacy of their own country, Chinese security forces would carry out a massive crackdown.” (This echoes efforts made by the Imperial Japanese Army to conceal atrocities from the small number of foreign missionaries, medical and business personnel, and journalists gathered in the Nanking Safety Zone during the 1937-38 massacre.)
The same Chinese Communist leadership that repeatedly calls on Tokyo to come clean on history has stubbornly defied all demands for an explanation of what happened at Tiananman Square. Even more disturbing, Chinese security forces continue their campaign of harassment and intimidation of victims’ families to this day.
Radio Free Asia reported on April 7 that “Members of the Tiananmen Mothers advocacy group, which represents all victims of the crackdown who died or were maimed, told Hong Kong media they were prevented from traveling to the graves of their loved ones ahead of the Qingming (Tomb Sweeping) holiday, which fell on Friday (April 4) but is honored throughout the weekend.”
The Tomb Sweeping holiday, in honor of a family’s deceased, is the ancient Chinese equivalent of Memorial Day. What kind of leadership would prevent grieving mothers from visiting the gravesites of their children? Is this an action of “those who love peace,” to quote the Chinese president?
President Xi was correct in Berlin. A sincere accounting of historic error is the only way to heal the wounds of the past. But the Chinese leadership needs to look homeward. If their concerns over skewed World War II history are to be taken seriously, they could first provide the Tiananmen Mothers and other human rights organizations with a full accounting.
Dennis P. Halpin is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS (Johns Hopkins) and a consultant for the Poblete Analysis Group (PAG).