Editorial – Remembering Tiananmen

Original source: The Guardian (Australia)

The 20th anniversary of the events that took place in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 4, 1989 has been and gone. Much of the media in Australia and elsewhere in the capitalist world launched into the predicted outpouring of mock concern for democratic and human rights in China – that special brand of “concern” reserved for perceived inadequacies in socialist countries. For them the tragic events had an extra significance – a missed opportunity to turn back the clock on social development in the most populous nation on earth and bring it back under the control of imperialist powers.

It is well to remember the whole context of those days. The socialist countries of Eastern Europe were under the most extreme pressure and would shortly cease to exist. Capitalism would soon be restored and the world subjected to an intensification of the US’ military drive for resources and markets. The grab back of workers’ rights and conditions in capitalist countries was also intensified. The ideologues of capitalism felt themselves to be on the verge of total victory over their enemy.

China was emerging from the economic and social setbacks suffered during the Cultural Revolution. The methods used to modernize the economy and open it up to the world brought some negative features with them. Corruption had increased and eliminating it has remained a top priority to this day. Income inequality between workers and entrepreneurs, between city dwellers and farmers and between regions had widened. The students and academics involved in the mass demonstrations had legitimate grievances.

But the movement was targeted by enemies of socialism from all over the world; ultra-leftists and the sorts of professional destabilizers who would later get to work in Yugoslavia and the various pro-US “color revolutions” in former Soviet republics had descended on Beijing. The visit of Mikhail Gorbachev, who oversaw the dismantling of socialism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, encouraged these forces in the early stages of the protests. Meetings with leading Chinese government figures and agreement over a number of issues did not placate the protest instigators. A figure resembling the US Statue of Liberty was fashioned and erected in Tiananmen Square and the challenge to the government was thrown down.

A TV advertisement put to air recently by WA businessman Ian Melrose in opposition to investment in Australia by Chinese company Chinalco invoked the memory of Tiananmen. The ad maintained that the “military government” of China was responsible for the deaths of “thousands” of students and workers on June 4, 1989. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke was moved to tears by their plight and granted Chinese students asylum in Australia. If we truly wish to pay respect to the memory of those who lost their lives on that day, we owe it to the public and ourselves to respect the truth also.

The Chinese government might not be to Mr Melrose’s tastes but it is not a military government. The official figures for the number of deaths, including police and soldiers, was 241. Other less well-documented estimates put the figure at several hundred. “Thousands” is an embellishment used by sources hostile to the government of China. Contrary to many of last week’s recollections, the earliest reports from sources such as the BBC were of attacks by youths on police and army vehicles, including firebombing. Workers and peasants did not support the protests in large numbers.

The incident that appeared to cause Hawke to break down in tears – involving an armored personnel carrier that allegedly ran over a group of students and then reversed over them to finish the job – was acknowledged to be a complete fabrication in the days that followed. Leaders like Hawke may have been hoping that large bodies of Chinese students outside China would form themselves into organizations opposed to the government of the Peoples Republic and act as a support for opposition forces in China. This did not eventuate.

The death of hundreds of students, academics, soldiers and police is tragic in any circumstances. Their loss will be felt by families, friends and communities for a long time to come. It is right that we should reflect on the circumstances that led to such an awful confrontation. Unfortunately, the anniversary will continue to be a rallying point for anti-Communists to distort the history of those times, to attack the national government of China and absolve those who pushed events to such a terrible conclusion.