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On Tanks and Pens

June 11, 2015


 ‘We are a group of Chinese students born in the 1980s and 1990s and now studying abroad. Twenty-six years ago on June 4th, young students, in life’s prime with innocent love for their country just as we are today, died under the gun of the People’s Liberation Army in Beijing’s streets. This part of history has since been so carefully edited and shielded away that many of us today know very little about it. Currently outside China, we have been able to access photos, videos and news, and listen to the accounts of survivors, unfettered. We feel the aftershocks of this tragedy across the span of a quarter century. The more we know, the more we feel we have a grave responsibility on our shoulders. We are writing you this open letter, fellow college students inside China, to share the truth with you and to expose crimes that have been perpetrated up to this day in connection with the Tian’anmen Massacre in 1989.’


I had not yet been born on the night of the 3rd to 4th of June, 1989, when the Chinese government issued orders for its army to crack down on civilian demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Neither had, I assume, Gu Yi, the graduate student who wrote the letter quoted above, or the ten other Chinese students who co-signed it from overseas. Our knowledge of those events stems from the paragraphs we read in our history books:


The 1989 protests started in the aftermath of the death of Hu Yaobang, former secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party and vocal advocate of democratic reform. Many students gathered, many demands were made: for government accountability, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and the restoration of workers' control over industry. Negotiations were tried, then replaced with tanks and machine guns. Anywhere between 241 and 2,600 people were killed that night.


But not all books tell the same story.


An alternate, simpler narrative reads: ‘Some people died, and some people killed them. If you understand that, you don't have to understand a lot more.’ A crackdown, if ever there was one, was unfortunate but necessary. Today, China prospers.


Perception drives reality, which in turn is penned down as fact. English playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton was right in saying, as far back as 1839, that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword.’ It takes many tanks and machine guns to wipe out 2,600 people, but one pen to make their progeny forget it.


One pen, and a highly sophisticated censorship system operated by approximately 100,000 state and private sector employees, comprising two main programs: the Great Firewall, which limits access to foreign websites, and the Golden Shield, which conducts domestic surveillance. Google no evil, see no evil, do no evil.


Long before the tanks and pens of Tiananmen, in 1948, George Orwell wrote: ‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.’ He was writing from experience:


In 1938, Orwell’s work for the BBC had brought him up close and personal with the Spanish civil war: ‘Nearly all the newspaper accounts published at the time […] were not only inaccurate in their facts but intentionally misleading.’ By 1945, he had experienced the BBC’s own historical rewriting of the Allies’ genocidal policy of carpet bombing German cities during World War II.


 ‘The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.’

― George Orwell, 1984


One last story:



In the midst of the Tiananmen Square events, and on the morning after the June 4 massacre, one man stood in front of a column of incoming tanks. Just stood. He was eventually dragged to safety by onlookers, but for a few minutes, that man halted an army while someone, somewhere, lived a few minutes longer.


That history does not recall the name of that man or what became of him, is a tragedy. That 85% of young Chinese do not even know he existed, is a far greater one. ‘A lie is when you say something happened which didn't happen.’ What then, do you call saying something didn’t happen, when it did?


A crime.


‘Until lions have their own historians, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’

Perhaps it was time someone picked up a pen and wrote the lions’ tale.


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