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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Remembering Zhao Ziyang’s speech to the students 25 years after Tiananmen

Today, June 4th, is the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, also known as the “June Fourth Incident”. Twenty-five years ago, on the orders of the Chinese government, the large protests in Beijing’s large central square were brutally suppressed by the People’s Liberation Army. Somewhere between 300 and 1000 Chinese lost their lives for standing up for the various demands they had of their country's government. The massacre is still covered up by the government in China, as the popular American cartoon The Simpsons lampoons below. 

Tiananmen is often remembered in the famous photo of “Tank Man”, one Chinese man standing in front of a row of Chinese T-59 tanks. A powerful picture, certainly, a testament to the resolve of the people who stood out until they could no longer. Tiananmen, however, is so much more than Tank Man. 

"Tank Man". In comedian Jon Stewart's book "America: A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction", he suggests that the man in the picture, rather than being a brave protestor, was simply an OCD-sufferer that liked to stand in front of large objects.

On the morning of May 19th, 1989, General Secretary Zhao Ziyang appeared in Tiananmen Square. It was not yet 5 am-Beijing was still dark. A crowd of students on hunger strike surrounded him, and one handed him a bullhorn. 

Zhao spoke to the students, obviously tired and worried. His message was one of sympathy and sadness. He called for an end to the hunger strike and reassured the students that the government would not close the doors of dialogue. 

His speech in full is as follows, and can be watched here. 

"Students, we came too late. We are sorry. You talk about us, criticize us, it is all necessary. The reason that I came here is not to ask for your forgiveness. What I want to say is that you are all getting weak, it has been seven days since you went on a hunger strike, you can't continue like this. As time goes on, your body will be damaged beyond repair, it could be very life-threatening. Now the most important thing is to end this strike. I know, your hunger strike is to hope that the Party and the government will give you a satisfying answer. I feel that our communication is open. Some of these problems can only be solved through certain procedures. For example, you have mentioned about the nature of the incident, the question of responsibility; I feel that those problems can be resolved eventually, we can reach a mutual agreement in the end. However, you should also know that the situation is very complicated, it is going to be a long process. You can't continue the hunger strike longer than seven days, and still insist on receiving a satisfying answer before ending the hunger strike.
You are still young, we are old, you must live healthy, and see the day when China accomplishes the four modernizations. You are not like us, we are already old, so we do not matter. It is not easy for this nation and your parents to support your college studies. Now you are all about 20, and about to sacrifice your lives so easily, students, couldn't you think rationally? Now the situation is very serious, you all know, the Party and the nation is very antsy, our society is very worried. Besides, Beijing is the capital, the situation is getting worse and worse everywhere, this cannot continue. Students, you all have good will, and are for the good of our nation, but if this situation continues, loses control, it will have serious consequences elsewhere.
In conclusion, I have only one wish. If you stop hunger strike, the government won't close the door for dialogue, never! The questions that you have raised, we can continue to discuss. Although it is a little slow, but we are reaching some agreement on some problems. Today I just want to see the students, and express our feelings. I hope students could think about this issues calmly. This thing can not be sorted out clearly under illogical situations. You all have that strength, you are young after all. We were also young before, we protested, laid our bodies on the rail tracks, we never thought about what will happen in the future at that time. Finally, I beg the students once again, think about the future calmly. There are many things that can be solved. I hope that you will all end the hunger strike soon, thank you. 

His speech was received with applause, tears, and a few autographs, but Zhao was purged soon after the speech, and placed under house arrest. He died of natural causes in 2005. 

China is still an authoritarian state, a country where 1.3 billion are unable to practice some of the most basic freedoms that hundreds of millions take for granted in nearby Japan and the Republic of Korea.

Repressive as it is, the People's Republic of China has reformed when the government believes such actions are necessary. Deng Xiaoping, the country's paramount leader from 1978-1994, reduced the personality cult of Mao Zedong, admitted the horrors of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and allowed his country to be opened to the world of private trade. After the Soviet Union fell, Chinese political scientists analyzed the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe extensively so as to prevent the same type of events from happening at home.

Perhaps it is again time for China to come to terms with a past sin. Any government that willingly fires upon its own people is taking a major risk, but admitting the problems of the past will allow the Chinese people and the Chinese government to move on in a more positive way. The country did not collapse after Deng admitted the atrocities committed under Mao.  Zhao Ziyang was labeled a traitor to the Chinese Communist Party by Deng Xiaoping, but Deng himself loosened the government's grip on the people, just as Zhao had expressed interest in.

Zhao claimed in his speech to the students that the government would never close the door for dialogue, and that he wished for the students to see their homeland accomplish the four modernizations. China has modernized on a grand scale since 1989, and today, Chinese students are traveling the world to bring entrepreneurship and innovation to their home country while promoting their advancing homeland. Many of the countries they travel to possess open media systems where the events of June 4th, 1989 are reflected upon every year. The Chinese government can't censor everything, and with the people becoming more worldly, it's going to get progressively harder for the government to retain their extensive methods of repression.

The government in Beijing has a chance to reconcile with its people over its past sins. Perhaps it should consider that avenue rather than continuing to embrace the thinking stressed by people like Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, who claims that "In China, there are no dissidents, only lawbreakers." It's time for Beijing to re-evaluate that idea before the people decide to re-evaluate it first. 

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