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Honoring China’s June 4th Martyrs

by Jeffery N. Wasserstrom on Jun 10, 1999

Jeffery N. Wasserstrom

What can and should members of the international community do to honor 1989’s Beijing martyrs? Not surprisingly, many analysts posed this question as the tenth anniversary of the June 4th Massacre drew near. Equally unsurprising was the answer most commentators gave: work to make China’s leaders to accept responsibility for the brutal crackdown of a decade ago.

There are, however, two other things, less often mentioned, that can and should be done to show respect for the martyrs. First, work to dispel mistaken ideas about who the martyrs were and why they were killed. This involves condemning the Chinese regime’s “Big Lie” version of events, which erroneously states that brave soldiers and traitorous troublemakers were the only ones who died on June 4th. It also entails clearing up some misconceptions about 1989 that continue to circulate in the West, such as that June 4th is best remembered as a day tanks crushed students in Tiananmen Square.

In fact, though many educated youths died, the great majority of victims were workers, killed not in the Square but on the streets. It is important to get these details right. Failure to do so does a disservice to the memory of those martyrs who were not students.

It also minimizes the true horror of June 4th. The massacre was not just an effort to clear a piece of politically sacred ground, as Henry Kissinger and some other Westerners who would minimize the culpability of the Chinese regime in 1989 would have it. The June 4th butchery was a show of brute force intended to intimidate as well. China’s leaders had long feared — and still do — the emergence of a multi-class opposition alliance like Poland’s Solidarity movement. It was thus no accident that many workers were killed; nor that the bloodshed continued after the Square was emptied.

The other thing that can and should be done honor the martyrs involves treating them as serious historical actors. This entails, first of all, refusing to romanticize the 1989 protests and treating the martyrs in a warts-and-all, not hagiographic fashion. To do this is to suggest that they may not have died in vain, since later generations can learn from their mistakes.

This kind of approach to the martyrs is exactly what some of the most thoughtful leaders of the 1989 protests have endorsed by reflecting self-critically on their own roles in the movement. The comments by Wang Dan and Liu Xiaobo, each of whom continued to speak out — and be punished for it — in China after 1989, are particularly noteworthy. Wang has expressed regret that he and other student leaders failed to find more effective ways to link up with workers. Liu has criticized the disquieting tendency of many protesters, including himself, to reproduce in their own organizations elements of the system they opposed. The Maoist pattern of dividing all people into “friends” or “enemies” of a sacred revolutionary movement, he claims, distorted efforts to create an alternative political order on the Square.

Another way to show respect for the martyrs as historical actors is to resist the trend of presenting China as an unchanging totalitarian state. Even though the 1989 movement ended tragically, it still accomplished some things, and ignoring this, in the rush to demonize China yet again, implies that the sacrifices made by the martyrs of June 4th led to no positive results at all. In fact, the pressure that they and other protesters brought on China’s leaders a decade ago did make an impact.

The anti-corruption campaigns of the last decade are a case in point. A major goal of the martyrs and other protesters was to force China’s leaders to take official corruption and nepotism seriously, and this is precisely what the regime has done. Anti-corruption campaigns have, admittedly, had mixed results, but the protests did succeed in making attacks on corruption a top government priority.

More generally, the protesters of 1989 complained that the state interfered too much in the lives of ordinary people and failed to listen to public opinion, and in the last decade, for many people, the state has become less intrusive. In addition, more channels for the expression of specific grievances, including public hotlines in some cities, have been opened. To be sure, the regime still behaves ruthlessly toward those who directly challenge its authority, but it is much easier now than before for many to speak their minds and go about their business without worrying too much about the state.

It would be foolish to reassess the 1989 protests as a complete success. China is still far from being the kind of country that many of the martyrs hoped it would become. Still, some noteworthy positive changes have taken place lately. That is something worth remembering this June. So, too, is the fact that the sacrifices brave people made a decade ago helped bring about those changes.


Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, a writer for the History News Service and the author of "China's Brave New World -- And Other Tales for Global Times" (2007).