Monday 4 June 2012

Remembering Tiananmen

By Edmund Lo, S.J.

June 4 is the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. This event is also known as liu si, or “six-four” (6/4) in Chinese, referring to its date. Many university students – while protesting for more democracy – were killed by the military for their efforts. Having spent the majority of my childhood in Hong Kong, I was familiar with, and had always participated in the protests and demonstrations in memory of this tragedy. I was 7 years old when 6/4 happened. One can rightfully ask, “Well, how much can a wee 7-year-old boy understand about democracy and politics?” Not much, in all honesty. Nevertheless, I was old enough to understand that something was seriously twisted and wrong, and that I was protesting for a worthy cause.

Neither geographical distance nor time – a good 23 years – have dampened my interest and concern regarding how 6/4 is being viewed in history. As of this moment, the Chinese government has not made any official comment or critique on 6/4. In the meantime, people in China are forbidden to learn about its details, as all “sensitive” information, comments and critiques that are even remotely linked to the massacre have been censored by the government (it remains to be seen whether this particular article would be similarly categorized). Protests are treated as fire to be quelled, and are always met with arrests. One is discouraged to commemorate what happened or even learn about the truth.

Yet, the protestors continue to voice their displeasure, and they are now joined by young people who were born after 6/4; in other words, the memory of Tiananmen has somehow percolated down into the next generation. In addition, more and more Chinese are trying to learn about 6/4 through a manoeuvre called fan qiang, or “going over the wall” – the Internet firewall erected by the government – to access the information. Persecution and censorship can take away many things in life such as speech and freedom, but it cannot take away one's memory.

This reminds me a very powerful reality: even when it is impossible to grant justice to the perished students, the memory of their deaths will forever be etched in me – and in many of us – as a reality that cannot be effaced. One can be threatened and persecuted, but the tragic reality that is 6/4 can never be taken away from one's memory. There is something concrete that I can do: remember such injustice, and keep it in my memory so to unveil this ugly truth one day. This is a motivation that can withstand persecutions, frustrations and failures.

This reminds me of “Campion’s Brag”, the statement by the Jesuit martyr, St. Edmund Campion. It was written to the Queen of England and her council who were persecuting Catholics in that country:

...touching our Society, be it known to you that we have made a league – all the Jesuits in the world, whose succession and multitude must overreach all the practice of England – cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never to despair your recovery, while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons.

The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God; it cannot be withstood. So the faith was planted: So it must be restored.

As with our faith, the unmasking of injustice is worth testifying to, even to the point of death. Remembering and commemorating may not seem like much, since it neither undoes nor reverses the injustice; but it is the way to keep the fire burning, so that light may shine and prevail in darkness.


  1. I'd just like to make a small point regarding the memory of June 4th.

    Being born in HK and spending a good portion of my childhood there, I was also brought up with the story of the protests and tragedies the day brought to the Chinese people.

    I agree with your post regarding justice and truth, which justifies the continued passing on of information and what the lost lives stood for in the face of persecution and death.

    However I do wish to make a minor point regarding the WAY in which this information is passed on to the next generation. Remembering and commemorating is all well and good, but we must not turn it into a 'hate demonstration' where people are incited to violence (not necessarily physical violence, but violence also in verbal or other forms). I get the feeling that for some, it is serving as an outlet for anger and neagativity that is unhealthy and quite frankly, uncatholic.

    Jesus taught us to love even our enemies. We can hate the actions and the atrocities that happened, but not the people responsible for it, and not the people that are in the Chinese government today, many of whom were not related to the events of that day over 20 years ago.

    Having said that, let us continue to pray for those that were affected by the tragedies of the day, and for the Chinese nation as a whole. May that day never be repeated in history again.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

      Re: anger and negativity sometimes displayed in demonstrations. I would contend that anger is not bad in and of itself, and it is sometimes necessary in certain situations; it is the way in which anger is channelled that makes the difference. Name-calling is a sad byproduct of bad politics, but similar tactics like this are nonetheless being used and are sometimes quite venomous; however, they are drastically different from calling politicians to task because of their incompetence. While I would consider the former (name-calling) uncharitable, the latter (passionately, or even angrily putting pressure on politicians to work on the people's behalf) is quite acceptable, if not recommendable.

      Re: who is it to blame. You are quite right in that the action does not make the person. But whether those who are in currently in power in China had any knowledge, or were involved in 6/4 on that fateful day is still open for debate. It is interesting that those who were in power at that time – including the former premier of China, Li Peng, and the former mayor of Beijing, Chen Xitong – have both released statements in an attempt to minimize their roles and responsibilities in the massacre. Their sentiments of regret perhaps mean a little bit, but they no longer have authority over the governmental response; it would not change a thing even if the blames were cast upon them now. Who is to blame, then? I don't think it is a matter of personal but rather a collective responsibility; that is, that of the current Communist government. There is simply no avoiding it.

      Ultimately, the power of memory lays the foundation for the coming of the dawn, when justice can finally be rendered to events such as 6/4. It carries the momentum for a collective transformation of hearts and minds, one that allows both the people of China and the Chinese government to close this chapter by literally doing it justice. This is the only way that a tragedy like 6/4 will not repeat itself.

      And indeed; prayers are definitely needed.


    2. Jesus got angry once. In the temple. And He was so angry, He flipped tables to clean house. =)