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Illuminating and Misleading Takes on China 20 Years Since Tiananmen

It doesn't seem too soon to provide a first assessment of some of the best and worst discussions about the Chinese events of 1989.
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I've already had my chance, via both print and online pieces, to offer my thoughts about the protests that erupted in scores of Chinese cities twenty years ago, the June 4th Massacre that crushed that upheaval, and how China has changed in the last twenty years. Meanwhile, though this is my first Tiananmen-themed piece for the Huffington Post, other contributors have been offering regular readers excellent reports and commentaries on specific subjects, ranging from the Tiananmen movement's significance to China's current leaders (subject of a fine piece by Susan Shirk) to the regime's decision to block Twitter and other social media (a topic handled well here by David Flumenbaum and also dealt with smartly and stylishly by Rebecca MacKinnon and Andrew Leonard on their blogs). I'm writing now with a different purpose: to comment on the commentaries. The Chinese events of 1989 have been revisited in so many ways lately that it doesn't seem too soon to provide a first assessment of some of the best and worst discussions of either the struggle as a whole or specific dimensions of it that have appeared, and to ask if the latest chatter on China fits in with larger patterns in coverage of that county.

As someone who finished a doctoral dissertation on Chinese student protests of the 1910s-1940s while the Tiananmen protest wave was underway (a revised version appeared as a book two years later) and soon afterward started serving as a consultant for the excellent documentary "The Gate of Heavenly Peace," I've spent a full two decades now not just paying attention to developments in China but also tracking international discussions of the June 4th Massacre and its precedents and legacy. Though I'll take issue with some parts of recent commentaries soon (pointing either to mistakes of fact or problems of interpretations, including the tendency by some analysts to overstate the degree of American influence on the students of 1989 or the gulf that separates the aspirations of those youths from those of their counterparts in the Beijing of today), I want to stress at the outset that I've found much to admire about some recent writings, as well as the overall coverage offered by some venues, including the Guardian and NPR websites. I've even learned some new specific facts about phenomena I thought I knew well: e.g., that the photographer who took the most famous shot of the man stopping the tanks thought, initially, that the man's arrival would "screw up" his photograph.

Getting down to specific new writings that seem particularly valuable, here are some examples of things I like. I was moved by the "growing cage" metaphor employed by Beijing-based independent writer Lijia Zhang, who marched in a Nanjing protest of 1989 as a young worker. She says that she and her fellow demonstrators felt trapped and longed to be freer; now, while still confined in a "cage," it is one that has "grown so big" for many of them that they can go about their daily lives unaware of "its limitations," thanks to the state being less intrusive and realms of private freedom expanding. I also found novelist Yu Hua's op-ed on gaining a new appreciation for the term "the people" in 1989 moving. And various Western journalists (both relative newcomers to the China beat like Mara Hvistendahl and people who were on the scene in 1989, such as James Miles and James Kynge) have done admirable pieces.

On the other hand, though, I've been dismayed to see some misguided old notions about the June 4th Massacre continue to circulate, and to see some odd ideas about contrasts between then and now get introduced or reinforced. In the familiar but still wrong category is the notion that the only people the troops killed in early June of 1989 were students; a larger number of those slain were workers. To cite just two examples of high-profile North American publications that do this, the National Post introduces a piece on Tiananmen's legacy by stating that the massacre was just of students, while an editorial in USA Today certainly gives readers that impression.

Another old problem that has resurfaced is a tendency to reduce the complexity of the grievances (economic as well as political), inspirations (provided by ideals rooted in China's own past as well from abroad), and symbols (the Goddess of Democracy was modeled on the Statue of Liberty but not simply a replica) involved in the struggle. To call the event a "pro-democracy" or "democracy" movement has always seemed an oversimplification to some analysts (myself included), and Kynge does a particularly good job of explaining its limitations. Still worse is to boil the undertaking down, as the Washington Times just did, to an effort to "bring America to China"; not only is this inaccurate, but it plays into a long-standing Chinese government argument that the protesters were somehow simply doing the bidding of the West and hence were not the "patriots" they claimed to be.

In terms of contrasts between the past and the present, there have been many apt handlings of the issue but also many that have gone astray. It is curious that a BBC video uses the fact that the current generation expresses itself by going to rock concerts to flag their difference from 1989 youths interested in politics, without noting that Chinese rocker Cui Jian was a key influence on the Tiananmen protesters. Similarly, while the specific forms that nationalism takes now may be different, it doesn't work to state or imply that nationalism played no role in the 1989 protests, since another singer the students found inspiring back then was Hou Dejian, whose most popular song at the time, "Children of the Dragon," had a strong nationalistic element to it.

Problems also arise when overly simplistic statements are made about then and now relating to freedom of speech and patterns of unrest. Nicholas Kristof muses, misleadingly, on why there are so "few protests" these days (there are a great many, just not ones that bring together people from different social groups or spread widely in geographical terms). Other writers misleading present the taboo regarding discussion of the June 4th Massacre in a manner that suggests a Big Brother state is tightly monitoring even the most private conversations, when the reality is that many people in China now feel free (and indeed are free), as they weren't always before, to talk among themselves about even hot-button topics, such as the crackdown in 1989, that would likely get them into trouble if they published about them or held meetings to discuss them.

In thinking about what patterns are revealed by these trends, I've found myself returning to an excellent piece that Timothy Garton Ash wrote just before the flood of stories linked to 1989 anniversary started, which the Los Angeles Times ran as "Lack of News about China has Nothing to Do with Bias" (it had other titles in other papers). One of his themes was the folly of putting too much emphasis on one kind of binary: that of the division between "positive" and "negative" stories about China. When Chinese official and unofficial commentators periodically complain that the Western press is distorting foreign understanding of the PRC by running too many "negative" stories about it and not enough "positive" ones, he pointed out, they overlook the fact that media systems in the West tend to thrive on "negative" reports about ALL places. And when it comes to getting a distorted sense of what is going on in the PRC, the "problem with regular China coverage in the mainstream western media is not its negativity; it's simply that there's too little of it," with the result that outsiders get not too jaundiced but too simplistic a sense of the complexities of the multiple and overlapping and often contradictory transformations reshaping Chinese society.

The recent situation suggests that in addition to this binary, others also can get in the way of understanding. Drawing a sharp divided between "internationally" minded and "nationalistic" generations of Chinese youths can lead us astray. So can thinking that the story of what happened in 1989 can be told in only two ways, the incorrect manner that the Chinese government tells it and the correct manner in which it is told outside of China, as one can be convinced that there are many ways to get the facts wrong, even if one believes, as I definitely do, that the Communist Party's "Big Lie" that there was no massacre on June 4th is the most disturbing of all ways to do so.

Ironically, the problem since Garton Ash published his piece has not been that there has been "too little" Western coverage of China. There's been plenty, thanks to not just the Tiananmen anniversary but also other developments, ranging from trips to Beijing by well-known political figures, to the latest North Korean nuclear crisis (these always lead to discussions of China's new importance in global diplomacy), to GM announcing that Hummers will henceforth be produced in the PRC. And yet, one suggestion that Garton Ash makes in his piece is as valuable in times of feast as in times of famine where China coverage is concerned. He tells readers who want to make sense of China from outside of the country that their best bet is to head to the "web, armed with a few tip-offs," as they can find there "an Aladdin's cave of rich, diverse, detailed reporting and analysis," adding that the should try " and as a first 'open sesame.'"

Well, sure enough, the two websites he mentions did an admirable job throughout the last few weeks of steering visitors toward some of the most worthwhile commentaries on 1989 and on comparisons between China then and China now, while also at times pointing out flaws in coverage of the topic. But that does not exhaust the list of sites worth turning to for a richer perspective on Chinese developments. And, interestingly, one of the places I've been turning to on the web to provide an "open sesame" for insightful analysis of the continuities as well as contrasts between the Tiananmen generation and today's Chinese students is a lively blog that Timothy Garton Ash is surely reading as well. It's called "Six," it just ran an excellent post called "Peking University of June 4th: 2009 is not 1989, and it's not 1984 either," and it's run by a 26 year-old British student* named Alec Ash, who hails from Oxford and has a father who first made his mark on the world of commentary by writing about the PolishSolidarity movement that won a famous electoral victory exactly 20 years ago today (and whose initials are "TGA").

* Author's correction added June 8: I've learned that he's actually only 23.

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