Remembering Tiananmen and 1989 in Europe [1]

June 4, 1989 may lay buried under new epochs already, but the meaning of that date for China and its observers is clearly going to continue reverberate for decades.

The Germans, perhaps most of all.  China was, and remains, highly sensitive to commemorations of June 4, 1989, but for Germans, the inspiration of the Chinese student movement of the 1980s, and the violent end to the spectacle, acted as catalysts for deep introspection and mobilization by East Germans in particular.  Today, Tiananmen 1989 is recalled in Germany as invioably mixed with the “peaceful revolution” which came that fall with “der Mauerfall” the falling of the wall) in November.  The Germans call this “die Wende” or “the change/the turning point”, and so they remain 1. mindful of the inspiration of Chinese students of that epoch, courage which added to their own impetus to act against the German Democratic Republic, and 2. still somewhat quizzical: Why is it that China failed to have its own peaceful revolution in 1989?

From an "Ausstellung," or exhibition, on Berlin's Alexanderplatz, June 2009
From an "Ausstellung," or exhibition, on Berlin's Alexanderplatz, June 2009
East German Students demonstrate in support of Chinese colleagues at a Protestant youth gathering, DDR
East German Students demonstrate in support of Chinese colleagues at a Protestant youth gathering, DDR
Banned East German flyer protesting Tiananmen Massacre; this image and above reproduced from the Alexanderplatz ausstellung
Banned East German flyer protesting "mass murder" at Tiananmen; underneath the corpse reads "China is not far!"; this image and above reproduced from the Alexanderplatz ausstellung

Taken in combination with the Germans’ unparalleled and actively cultivated culture of public memory, the aforementioned adds to German exasperation with China: Why is it that Chinese on the mainland are so unable to commemorate the event?  The active suppression of memory is a subject that veritably cascades from German presses, and so we ought to heed this impulse when it is applied to China.

(This leads me to wonder, as someone who has written a modest amount about Chinese memory of the War of Resistance / World War II, if any kind of theoretical literature exists which juxtaposes or equates the repression of memory of the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen with, say, Holocaust denial in Iran, orm for instance, the American selective memory of the Vietnam War.   A recent essay in Beijing’s Wenyi Pinglun (Cultural Critique) at least begins to tie these threads together, but that is the subject for a future post.)

And thus the Western press reports about the 20th anniversary of June 4, 1989 from the German press are especially interesting.  Let us begin with Heinrik Bork, the correspondent for the center-left Munich newspaper Süddeutscher Zeiting. His dispatch from Beijing, published on June 5, notes the standard battery of police in the square on that day, but he goes on with some deeply critical commentary:

Auch zwanzig Jahre nach dem Massaker in Zentrum Pekings, bei dem Soldaten mit Panzern und Maschinengewehren gegen unbewaffnete Demonstranted vorgegangen waren, bleibt dieses Datum fur die kommunistische Fuhrung in Peking problematisch.  Waehrend viele Student heute vor allem am Geldverdienen und nicht so sehr an Politik interessiert sind, gibt es gleichzeitig eine nicht zu unterschatzende Zahl von Unzufriedenen und Reformverlieren.

Bork further notes that Liu Suli, “the owner of a beloved cafe in the university district, hung curtains in the window with the roman numerals ‘VI’ and ‘IV’, seeking to remember the massacre.”  The reporter goes on, “the police forced (zwangen) him to take them down.”

On June 4, 2009, notes Bork, German Chancellor Angel Merkel remarked on the massacre in the somewhat resonant city of Krakow, Poland.  And Bork cedes to Ai Weiwei 艾, who is becoming somewhat of a superstar in Europe, the entire last paragraph of the newspaper storyfor a stunningly moralistic/ironic quote from the artist’s blog “Let us forget!”

(In dissembling Ai Weiwei’s rage, his public nudity, his crude gestures [“Fuck Pekin,” noted the left-wing Parisian journal Liberation gleefully, giving Ai’s flick-off of Tiananmen square an entire striking black-and-white page on June 17], it is too rarely remarked that he inherited the core of these contrarian characteristics from his father, the poet Ai Qing 艾青.  One need only read Ai Qing’s Resistance War poetry / 抗战 诗歌 , its description of a bloodly, smiling and defiant inexplicably giant China of 1937, to get a sense of how little such an artist’s will can be bent against his morality.)

In her long exposition on Tiananmen in the voluminous weekly newspaper Die Zeit, Angela Köckritz begins with a colorful recollection, some strong writing, about the visit to the apartment of “Xue,” who was 13 years old in 1989, and whose apartment got shot up on June 4 of that year.  Students today, notes Köckritz with opprobrium, know nothing of it.  The reporter she lists the things the Germans know so well; in the absence of these standard objects of commemoration in China, one gets a sense of the vacuum here: “Nichts erinnert an den 4. Juni, keine Plakate, kein Bild, kein Gedenktag [Nothing recalls June 4: no placards, no picture no day of rememberance.” “For Xue,” Köckritz concludes the paragraph, “nothing remains of that day except a few pestering questions [by a reporter].”

Some Chinese critics claim that European reporters don’t speak Chinese and have no understanding of Chinese culture. I know that such critics exist, because I met one last night in the form of a very intelligent Chinese Ph.D. student in engineering, last night at a party in a very interesting space at the end of the #19 train tracks at the Gare Montparnasse in Paris.  He insisted that French reporters were smug and sprachlos in Chinese.  In the case of the French press, there are times he might be right; for example, on June 17, Le Monde published an insular, snide, smug and technically-accurate-yet-basically-misleading dispatch about rich and disinterested young Berliners, a piece seemingly uninflected by solid reporting or linguistic acumen.  This is to say, that in the case of French reporters in China, a lack of understanding or linguistic acumen is certainly possible.  But I am still hunting and hope to debate this further with Mr. Song at a later time.

Anyone who thinks that European reporters are simply ignorant of Chinese culture or unable to apply their substantial knowledge to China should take a closer look at Köckritz’s work.  Her article slides into a two-paragraph analysis of the Beijing theater scene and the nature of art and protest.  And she does so without resorting to the easy way; e.g., Ai Weiwei is here left on the sideline:

“So alt wie die Zensu ist der Versuch, sie zu umgehen.  Und eine Kultur, in der Zensur immer eine Rolle spielte, entwickelt feine Mechanismn bei dem Versuch, sich ihr zu entziehen.  Gemeint ist die Kunst, zwischen den Zeilen zu lesen, das Unausgesprochenen mitzuhoeren, einin Text zu drehen und zu wenden, bis er seine geheim Botschaft offenbart.”

She then goes on to recollect how seditious writings were spread and hand-copied from Sichuan to the east coast during the Cultural Revolution.  (Perhaps these are the fore-runners of the “pornographic hand-copied stories” which Hu Jintao referred to in 1984.)  And prior to this, we learn that forced forgetting (“zwangsvergessen”) in China is hardly a phenomenon unique to Tiananmen; the Great Leap Forward is also eclipsed and repressed, for “the official written history only wishes to build the picture of China on the road to Great Power status [caution; I did a sloppy translation of this particular phrase, best to consult the original if using for academic purposes].  The author concludes with a Wang Dan reference, and does a bit of comparison with Falun Gong.  But her most powerful sentence may be this: “Krise und Jahretage — eine potenziell explosive Mischung [Economic Crisis and Anniversaries — a potentially explosive mix].”  And here she arrives at the key point: any allowance of demonstration or public commemoration of virtually any event, let alone one that has been so forbidden and potentially impassioned as June 4, is particularly unwelcome by the CCP under conditions that, in spite of 7.1% economic growth (reported in Tsing Tao Ribao, July 18, 2009, issue found strewn on the floor of the #12 subway line last night), they do not wish to unlock.

Heinrik Bork makes a similar point in concluding his June 3, editorial, beginning with the potentially offensive opening salvo: “In this year China will again send soldiers to the Square of Heavenly Peace.  Don’t worry, they won’t shoot anybody.”  He then goes on to explain the primacy of the anniversary of the 60th year of the PRC’s birth, concluding the editorial with a note that economic dislocation, if severe enough in China, “could roil the societal consenus of the last 20 years, and unsatisfied urbanites might again go to the streets.”

One final note on Kockritz: One of the great things about writing for Die Zeit is that length is never an issue: just spill it, go all out with those Teutonic impulses, 记者!  Articles in tiny typeface can spread across two full pages.  Which is why Die Zeit is a weekly.


Heinrik Bork, “‘Die Herrschenden hoffen, dass jeder vergisst’: Nur wenige mutige Chinesen wagen es, an das Tiananmen-Massaker zu erinnern [‘The Rulers Hope That Everyone Forgets: Only a few audacious/ballsy Chinese venture to remember the Tiananmen Massacre]” Süddeutscher Zeiting, 5 June 1989, p. 7.

Heinrik Bork, [editorial by a reporter in the field!] “‘Pekings Rueckwaerts-Laeufer: Zwanzig Jahre nach dem Tiananmen-Massaker gibt es viele heimliche Demokraten in China [Beijing’s Run Backwards: Twenty Years after the Tiananmen Massacre there are many clandestine democrats in China]” Süddeutscher Zeiting, 3 June 1989, p. 5.

Angela Köckritz, “Die zensierte Trauer: Vor 20 Jahren uberrollten Panzer demonstrierende Studenten in Peking.  Wer an di Opfer erinnern will, muss eine Geheimsprache beherrschen [The Censored Trauma: 20 years ago tanks rolled against demonstrating students in Peking.  Those who wish to remember the victims must use Pig Latin,” Die Zeit, 4 June 2009, p. 6.


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