The Democracy Network

Tiananmen 25 years on: Rowan Callick, Why Remember the Past?

By Rowan Callick

Why remember the past? Or should that be, why discover the past?

I recall an intriguing conversation at Melbourne University with a doctoral student there from China. The student had told me that he and friends had set up a website devoted to correcting the mistakes of journalists writing about China. I told him I welcomed the idea. Everyone needs to be put right when they’re wrong, I said.

Could he give me an example? He cited what he described as one of the most clearly wrong pieces of journalism, written by my friend John Garnaut, who had described in a piece recalling the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake, how he had watched PLA soldiers leave a store in a quake-hit town, laden with goods. I sensed where the conversation was going. Why wrong? I asked. “Because they were PLA soldiers. They are the people’s army.” I then mentioned that we were having this conversation on June 1. In a few days, I said, we’d be remembering the anniversary of an event where elements of the PLA were strongly accused of acting against the people. He looked blank. What do you mean? He claimed to know next to nothing about Liu Si, the events of that fated day.

Another Chinese student with whom I later discussed this episode, asked me what I was talking about. What happened on June 4, and where, she asked. I told her, as briefly as I could, the best established facts. She was astonished. Why didn’t anyone tell me before? she asked.

The answer is simple. For the party, as I relate in my book Party Time - who runs

Party Time cover.

China and how - control of the past is a key to control of the present and future. The historian Xia Chuntao, vice director of the Deng Xiaoping Thought Research Centre at the Chinese Academy of Social Science, told me: “There is only one correct and accurate interpretation of history, and only one explanation that is closest to the truth. There is a pool of clear water, and there is no need to disturb this water. Doing so can only cause disturbance in people’s minds.”

History is so potentially disruptive that it essentially stops, as a subject suitable for general disbursement, at 1949. And it starts with the first Opium War in 1840. So the thread of Chinese history comprises victimisation by foreigners followed by heroic victory by the party’s founders. This has changed little over the years.

Combat at Guangzhou (Canton) during the Second Opium War Wikipedia

Where does June 4 fit into that? Or even those earlier great student demonstrations of May 4 1919 that radicalised Chinese intellectuals? The latter, with its strong libertarian setting remains only partially approved by the party. The former was simply a non-event. The brave relatives and friends, especially the mothers, of those killed in and around Tiananmen refuse to let those deaths slip into pointless oblivion.

The human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who was arrested last month for reasons that remain both mysterious and obvious, vowed to himself on June 4 1989 to return to Tiananmen every year on that day. He wrote: “If I just slouch along through life, taking the easy route, what do I say to the spirits of those murdered ‘rioters’? And if everyone forgets, are we not opening the door to future massacres? Our Tiananmen generation is now in middle age; we are in positions where we can make a difference. Do we not want to?”

Louisa Lim, whose book The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited is published today, describes how “when 76-year-old Zhang goes to the cemetery to mourn her son, dozens of plainclothes policemen monitor her movements. One year she managed to make offerings at the spot where her son, Wang Nan, died on

The People’s Republic of Amnesia. Bookdepository

the sidewalk of Chang’an Avenue. The next year she was forbidden to leave her home. To this day, a closed-circuit camera is trained upon that spot, awaiting her return.”

Today, then, marks the 25th anniversary of the most famous and least known event in modern Chinese history.

Its mark on history will remain massive.

It explains the muted nature of the honouring in Beijing of Deng Xiaoping, blamed for unleashing the troops, at his passing eight years later.

It explains the constant double-digit growth in spending on the People’s Liberation Army, which is credited with rescuing the party, on June 4 and beyond, from the ebbing of power that doomed its Soviet sister-party. It remains resolutely the party’s army, not the government’s.

In Australia, the events shocked Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who had built a strong personal relationship with the party general secretary Zhao Ziyang who was discarded for failing to deal sufficiently severely with the demonstrators, and held under house arrest until he died in 2005.

Hawke said: “To crush the spirit and the body of youth is to crush the very future of China itself.” He broke down on TV, and announced - without any previous discussion - that no Chinese student in Australia would be forced to return home. More than 20,000 were here, many from Shanghai. Most did choose to stay, obtained permanent protection visas and then citizenship, and have become exceptionally productive citizens, including by building bridges back to China.

Despite the common myth, there is no gravity that pulls societies that are modernizing, also in a liberal democratizing direction. China has in some ways stepped back from that route since those high hopes of the 1980s. The jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo told me not long before he was arrested for his role in Charter 08: “No matter how rich a society is, as long as it is ruled by a privileged class which gains its wealth from an unbalanced and opaque system, there will be strong discontent. And any defence of this group’s economic interests will evolve into a defence of its political rights.”

Tiananmen of course means Gate of Heavenly Peace, after the huge gate that addresses the square from the Forbidden City. But until this 25 year old issue starts to be addressed within the country - who did what and why - for most people in the wider world, the word Tiananmen triggers an instant connection to repression, to the detriment of China.

And at home, the party doesn’t want to contemplate even opening that door an inch, since the new, rapidly evolving governance of China under Xi Jinping, the strongest leader since Deng Xiaoping, means removing layers of government and regulations, so that directions flow more clearly straight from the top. To work as planned, this requires deepening the trust between ordinary folk and the party that has frayed as inequality and corruption have grown. Maintaining control of history, of that clear pool through which one can see straight through 1989 without the waters being clouded by deadly clashes, thus becomes even more crucial.

John Fitzgerald, director of the Asia-Pacific Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy at Swinburne University of Technology, describes how in his smuggled-out memoirs, the discarded party secretary Zhao Ziyang recalled Premier Li Peng growing furious, telling him that “allowing demonstrators to negotiate with the party and government as equals would be to negate the leadership of the CCP and of the entire socialist system.” Fitzgerald says: “Li won the day. Today no-one in China equals a party official except another party official. In consequence, the corruption that comes with special privilege has spiralled out of control. When Li Peng won, power won. Everyday dignity and civility lost. So every day since June 1989 has been a reprise of that fateful day – an everyday struggle for ordinary human dignity day in and day out.”

Rowan Callick

Rowan Callick photo. Rowan Callick

Rowan Callick is the Asia-Pacific editor of The Australian. He became in 2013 a Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. He is a member of the Advisory Boards of Deakin University’s Deakin Foundation, and of Melbourne University’s Asian Law Centre. His book “Party Time: Who Runs China and How” (Black Inc and Palgrave Macmillan) was published in 2013. He has won the Graham Perkin Award for Journalist of the Year and two Walkley Awards.


In commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen uprising, this is a contribution to a public event organised by the Sydney Democracy Network, in cooperation with the Australian Institute of International Affairs (NSW branch) and the China Democracy Forum.