Monday, 11 June 2012

Reflecting on June 4th

I got back from a regatta in Koh Samui, Thailand (where we won our division...), in time for the annual vigil in Hong Kong to mark the events of June 4th 1989 in China: when the Chinese leadership, under Deng Xiaoping, decided they'd had enough of the demonstrations in Tian'anmen square, sent in the army and tanks, resulting in deaths of many, in numbers between hundreds to 2-3,000 (the exact figure never having been revealed, to my knowledge)
These demonstrations, which swelled to millions in Beijing, were all about students demanding a reassessment of the legacy of the late Hu Yaobang who had been purged just before his death.  They spread to the Beijing population more widely and called for an end to the ban on private newspapers and to press censorship; pressed state leaders and their family members to disclose their wealth to stem corruption (something that's come up again recently in the case of Bo Xilai's arrest); demanded greater funding for education and an end to restrictions on demonstrations in Beijing.
I was there in Beijing just a few days before June 4th: a consultant, then, to Australian business in China.
I arrived around 30th May, from London via Moscow.  I was in Moscow to pin down that stage of a documentary of a train trip from Beijing to Berlin, which eventually came out as a four-part doco called "The Red Express".  That was all done with great ease, to my surprise.  I met a Pavel from one of the media departments of the fag-end Soviet Union, which was to crumble just two years later.  Pavel presented me with a list of prices for their services, from hiring helicopters, to getting filming permission on board the trains.  My first time in the Soviet Union, and it all seemed almost too easy. I signed up, on behalf our our Australian client, and headed to Beijing.
There I met up with our Chinese partner in "The Red Express", the Great Wall Publishing House, with whom we'd done a previous book and were finishing a new project.  The book, "China, the Long March", was a pretty coffee-table book on Mao's famous "walk" from South China to Yen'an in 1929.  We were also in the final stages of doing another documentary with them -- "The Great Wall of Iron", an exclusive inside look at the Chinese military, the PLA.  So you'd think having done these two with them, doing another would be routine; but no.  They were finicky and pernickety, quite a contrast with Russia, and I didn't get the full business done.
So I wander down to Tian'anmen Square to check out the demonstrators.  Tens of thousands filled the square, many living there in tents. I spoke to many.  The moods were like today's "Occupy" movements... open, friendly, hopeful.  The few authorities around, police and military were relaxed and seemed on side with the demonstrators.  There was no hint of the carnage that was to take place just a few days later.
So I headed back to Australia, to report to our clients on progress in our two projects.
I remember so clearly waking on the morning of June 4th 1989, and seeing the non-stop coverage of the events in Beijing, mainly in the Square, but also in surrounding streets.  Tanks in the square, the tattered remains of tents.  Reports of thousands having been killed, including run over by tanks, pictures of crushed bicycles, wounded being rushed to hospitals.  Soldiers, too, had been killed, some, grotesquely, hung from a bridge at Dong Dan.  But the army was in power, the demonstrations crushed.
I was due back in Beijing just a few days later to try to finalise the "Red Express" and what to do now with the in-the-can footage of "The Great Wall of Iron".  What to do with an inside look at the armed forces that were now crushing students under tanks?
I arrived in an eerily empty Beijing, few cars on the streets, tanks still at main intersections.
I stayed at the "Great Wall Sheraton" hotel, not quite in the centre of town.  It had been spared damage, but all along Chang'an main street, building were shot up, including, shockingly, the major 5-star hotel and convention centre, the World Trade Centre, its windows shattered.
The Chinese I met were in shock, but with dry, sardonic humour, the greeting was no longer "Ni Hao", but "You're still alive, then?" (你还活着呐?).
Everyone, but everyone, knew what had happened and was horrified.
So here's the surprise: many people in China today have no idea of what happened on June 4th.  So those who might think that government censorship is futile are wrong in this case.  The forgetting, or not knowing, of June 4th has been very successful for the regime in Beijing.
Back to the annual June 4th vigils in Hong Kong, two observations:
One: this year there were far more at the vigil in Victoria Park than in previous years; over 100,000 according the organisers.  This pleasantly surprised me, as I'd thought perhaps the innate pragmatism -- Hong Kong as a money-making place -- would mean gradual diminishing of the memory of an event that happened 23 years ago, and in another place.  The numbers were made up, increasingly, by young people, many not even born when it happened. So they do have a social conscience, and it hews to accountability, to openness, to making a statement to Beijing: the dreams and hopes of those students in Beijing -- an end to censorship and corruption -- are alive in their minds.
Second: increasing numbers of mainland Chinese are coming to Hong Kong to take part in the vigil, to find out what it was all about, to express their own hopes for a better, more accountable, less corrupt government.
These are good trends.  June 4th will not be forgotten. And if the leadership in Beijing can ever bring themselves to "reassess" those events of 23 years ago -- and there are hints they're considering it -- it will be better for the people of China and Hong Kong.