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Rowena Xiaoqing He and the Tiananmen Massacre

In the spring of 1989, millions of citizens across China took to the streets in a nationwide uprising against government corruption and authoritarian rule.  What began with widespread hope for political reform ended with the People’s Liberation Army firing on unarmed citizens in the capital city of Beijing. Thousands of people were killed or arrested. Those leaders who survived the crackdown became wanted criminals.

In The Black Book of Communism (1997) twentieth-century Asia specialist Jean-Louis Margolin writes about the unfeigned surprise of Deng Xiaoping at the world’s appalled reaction to the Tiananmen massacre of 4 June 1989. The Chinese leader could not understand all the fuss about the deaths of some thousand protesters, in view of China’s recent past when tens of millions were killed. Margolin interprets Deng’s comment as “a kind of confession” regarding the enormities of Mao Zedong’s government: the famine resulting from the ironically named Great Leap Forward, the laogai prison labor system, the barbarities of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, and the genocide in Tibet where Margolin estimates that fifteen per cent of the population died because of the Chinese occupation there. He disagrees with Deng: even in the full ghastly context of China’s long march into the night of communist totalitarianism the Tiananmen massacre deserves more than a footnote in the history of the country’s dictatorship. The deaths, injuries, and arrests at Tiananmen furnish evidence of the regime’s violently repressive character long after Mao.

Rowena He’s powerful book, Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China, appeared in print on the day of her speaking engagement in the University of Montana’s President’s Lecture Series. Born and raised in China, she moved to Canada in 1998 and received her Ph.D. from the University of Toronto in 2008.  She spent two years as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and now teaches in the Department of Government. For the last three years, she has won teaching awards at Harvard.  For her expertise on contemporary China she has received many invitations to give interviews for newspapers and television news programs.  Her op-eds about China have appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.  She has given numerous talks at universities about the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre. Professor He witnessed this unprecedented popular movement in Communist China.  She would later join former student leaders and other exiles in North America, where she has worked tirelessly for over a decade to keep the memory of the Tiananmen Movement alive.  She has been described as “one of the most courageous academics in the United States.” A reviewer of her book called it a powerful memoir, preeminently useful “not only to unlock the past and explain the present but also to peer into the future of China’s sustained struggle against totalitarian tyranny.”

Professor He began her seminar at UM with an apology. She was embarrassed to have to ask the audience not to record her presentation, for fear of reprisals against her family in China. The government condemned as traitors all truth-tellers about Tiananmen, still twenty-five years later a taboo subject. Out of a similar fear, she had not identified the individual who had taken the photograph for the cover of her book. Of course, the book would be banned in China. She wondered if it ever would be possible for her to return home again.

Government censorship and suppression of the truth had prevented people from learning the facts about the Tiananmen massacre. Most people in China knew nothing about it, and even in America her Chinese students expressed amazement or incredulousness at being told that anyone had been killed at Tiananmen. The government had assured them that nothing of the kind had occurred. She had experienced virulent attacks from Chinese nationalists, who accused her of lying. Hate mail continued to come to her regularly. At this point in the seminar, Professor He described how in totalitarian societies a phenomenon she called “the locking of the mind” occurs. When the right to criticize the government does not exist, it becomes impossible to test the truth of any of its policies or claims. All the power and its appurtenances are in one impregnable place. The fascists wanted everything in the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state. Fascist and communist dictatorships have that much and more in common. There certainly is no freedom in China today to conduct an honest investigation of the truth about the Tiananmen massacre, which officially is regarded as nothing but a counter-revolutionary riot.

Professor He spoke about her exile in Canada and the United States. Had she identified completely with the values of the West or, in the scathing manner of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, found America to be a desolately materialistic and soul-dead society where art and even basic decency had ceased to exist? Here she made an important distinction. The values of democracy, freedom, and justice she thought worthy of universal aspiration, allowing perhaps for different ways of achieving them. The actions of the West, on the other hand—such as its wars—had to be viewed critically, as the Tiananmen exiles did. Perhaps the American establishment might benefit from exposure to the Tiananmen spirit.

Richard Drake
15 April 2014

Published inNotebook

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