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Editors’ picks for 2019: ‘Tiananmen remains unfinished business for China, and for Australia’

Posted By on December 31, 2019 @ 06:00

Originally published 4 June 2019.

In the immediate aftermath, I was unwilling to speak about my experience of Tiananmen. In Beijing, where I stayed until the end of 1990, there was no need to talk about it. Everyone knew what had happened. Later, back in Australia, I was careful not to say too much, partly not to cause trouble for Chinese friends, partly not to complicate things for my Australian colleagues.

When I published an account of my interaction with Liu Xiaobo [1] in Chinese whispers in 1995, I felt I should not identify him by his full name. As one of the thinkers who best articulated the alternative China that many people envisaged in the late 1980s, Liu had played an important, courageous role in the events of 3–4 June 1989. I was with him when he made the fateful decision not to take refuge in the Australian embassy. That same night he was picked up while riding his bike along a nearby street and taken away. When he was released from detention 18 months later, he went on with his reasoned critique of the Chinese system, eventually authoring Charter 08 [2], a call for reform, for which he was arrested again and heavily sentenced in 2009.

He was in prison when he was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, which he dedicated [3] to ‘the Tiananmen martyrs’, and in prison at the time of his cruel, state-sanctioned death in 2017, aged 61. His ashes were scattered at sea, preventing the site of his remains from becoming a shrine. It is hard to believe that one individual could so enrage the powerful Chinese Communist Party. It is hard to understand why China would destroy one of its best and brightest for advocating non-violent reform in legal and constitutional ways.

When the 25th anniversary of 4 June 1989 came around, I decided that any self-imposed statute of limitations was over and I agreed to an interview with Stephen McDonald for ABC’s Foreign Correspondent. It was a way to draw attention to Liu’s plight in prison in China. Now the 30th anniversary has come around and he is dead. I feel I owe it to his memory to keep speaking.

Tiananmen remains unfinished business for China. The more extreme the attempt to erase all knowledge of it within China, the more unfinished the business becomes, and the more interest there seems to be. If I mention to Chinese acquaintances that I was in Beijing in June 1989, they unfailingly ask what I saw. They are sometimes a little embarrassed that they have to ask a foreigner. They often reciprocate with their own stories, or stories they’ve heard. Despite China’s immense capacity for propaganda and information control, the silencing has not worked entirely.

That’s not to say I haven’t heard the line that the bloody suppression of the demonstrations was necessary to stop the country from descending into chaos. Killing the chickens to frighten the monkeys. Or that the demonstrators were naive, manipulated for a faction fight on high. Such views reflect a complex and opaque situation. The spectre of the Cultural Revolution was still raw for many. But they also imply that the Chinese political system had no means of responding to a crisis except with brute force.

The resort to sheer power has been the CCP’s modus operandi for a long time and is now a hallowed legacy. The party-state has sought to redefine sovereignty along those lines. If you’re powerful enough, you must do what it takes to maintain that power. This form of Kissingerian realpolitik melds with notions of Confucian benevolence from the top and deferential fealty from below. How plausible or sincere this is in the long run remains to be seen.

After the catastrophe of 3–4 June, a brilliant generation put their heads down and drove the economic engine hard. Their idealism gave way to pragmatism. As they jumped into the sea of business, there was value in partnering with the party. One commentator, describing the contemporary art of those times, dubbed it ‘cynical realism’. The results, as we know, have been spectacular. Determined Chinese turned a forced U-turn into a superhighway. We in Australia are beneficiaries, and complicit. But along the way something has gone wrong too. The amoral option, adopted as the only choice, has produced injustice on a far grander scale than brought people onto the streets 30 years ago. In response, the government is more totalitarian than ever in its rhetoric and its surveillance.

One of Liu’s most penetrating insights was to understand how the problems that assail China are really proxies for China’s own problems. The Tibet problem, the Xinjiang problem, the Hong Kong problem, the Taiwan problem—issues of self-determination at the margins reflect issues of freedom and human rights at the heart. China’s long century of self-reflection began in 1919 with radical calls for science and democracy. This led, at high human cost, to the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. Then, after years of disaster, came the questioning of the Democracy Wall movement in 1979 followed by the far larger protests a decade later.

For the process of self-reflection to continue now, in order to achieve the best for China, it will take serious intellectual work. Embedded in historical progression, the 4 June anniversary date only becomes more insistent each time it comes around. More information is becoming available as the 1989 generation hands over its demand for reckoning to those who come after. Much is at stake, not only for the past but for the future.

Ironically, the relationship between Australia and China was at its closest in 1989. Australia had tentatively opened the door to Chinese students. It was early days for the international education industry that is now worth billions of dollars and on which our universities and national research agenda depend. In 1988 young, enterprising Chinese were sending money they had scraped together to Australian diplomatic posts hoping for a visa for short-term study in Australia. There was optimism all round. Political engagement was advancing and the foundations were being laid for a trade relationship that would boom.

By the end of June 1989, the student visa applications overwhelmed the posts. There were already many thousands of Chinese students in Australia when Bob Hawke, shedding tears for Tiananmen, promised they could stay. The promise extended to many more who came soon after, some of whom were refugees too, fleeing retribution for their political activism in China. It was a strong, self-selected cohort, with a multiplier built in through family reunion. Talented and determined as a group, the Tiananmen migrants have contributed hugely to Australian society as businesspeople, scientists, researchers, artists and community members.

The first gunshot of 1989 is said to have been fired by the artist Xiao Lu as part of her installation and performance work at the China/Avant-Garde Exhibition in Beijing in February 1989. After 4 June, she sought refuge in Australia, where she lived for eight years. She is ranked now as one of the most significant artists of her generation. Because of her close ties to Australia, the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Sydney staged a retrospective of her work earlier this year, recalling her trajectory from 1989. That’s just one example of how intimately what happened in China 30 years ago has become part of Australia’s historical record too.

What that means, today, for our engagement with the Chinese state remains unfinished business.

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URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/editors-picks-for-2019-tiananmen-remains-unfinished-business-for-china-and-for-australia/

URLs in this post:

[1] Liu Xiaobo: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/13/world/asia/liu-xiaobo-dead.html

[2] Charter 08: https://www.hongkongfp.com/2017/07/14/full-charter-08-liu-xiaobos-pro-democracy-manifesto-china-led-jailing/

[3] dedicated: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2010/xiaobo/lecture/

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