Remembering the June 4th Incident – Tiananmen ’89

I’ve got an OpEd on Bernews today, regarding the June 4th Incident of 1989 – or as it’s better known in the West, the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

I’m not going to repeat the OpEd here, but I thought it useful to give it some more framing for readers.

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, PRC.

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, PRC.

The article itself is based largely on my experiences when living in Nanjing, a city to the north of Shanghai, in the People’s Republic of China, back in 2001.

Despite already being a committed Marxist by then, I was largely ignorant of Maoist thought and the Marxist tradition in China at that time.

I spent my time teaching English and learning as much as I could (with my limited grasp of Mandarin) of how people felt about the ‘communist’ system and communism more generally – and this unavoidably led to conversations about the June 4th Incident.

I’ve condensed (for the sake of space) the three main views that seemed to emerge from the different social classes I interacted with – professionals, workers and intellectuals.

Each of these groups had different interpretations of what the June 4th Incident meant to them, what they remembered from that day and what it was all about, as well as how relevant it was today, then 12 years after the incident.

I’m sure it’s somewhat changed now – as I noted, the younger generations were largely ignorant of the incident (the authorities have methodically sought to erase it from official history), although there’s still likely a residual memory, partly collective and partly an oral history, about the incident.

I think the growing emergence of the Chinese New Leftism, especially in the wake of the global economic crisis, draws on part of this residual memory and the lessons of the June 4th Incident.

At the time of my living in the PRC the New Leftism was still rather embryonic, as was the then nascent independent workers movement (despite large strikes in the north-east).  They’re much stronger now, albeit still with great obstacles to overcome.

To many in the West the June 4th Incident was a revolt against communism – that’s the narrative we’ve been told, and, it’s true, many of those involved that escaped to the West have since become key advocates of neo-liberalism.

However, from my interaction with people who were involved in it directly (either in Tiananmen Square itself, or its related demonstrations, including in Nanjing) that was only a minority view, and one found only amongst working professionals.

Amongst workers they recalled it as an attempt to advance the revolution to a more truly communist/socialist reality.

Amongst intellectuals it was an attempt to humanise the communist system, not replace it.

Ultimately, to me, it’s important to honour those who died fighting for what they believed in – which was a hope for a better world, whichever view one takes of ’89.

And that hope – that a better world is possible – is as valid in the liberal democracies of the West as it is in the cities of China today.


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