Tiananmen Square crackdown

Truth Commission needed to unearth facts of Tiananmen Square

C.K. Yeung says the people are entitled to know how many were killed, wounded or secretly jailed

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 June, 2014, 8:14pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2014, 1:34am

The people's square is the best place to parade the military, the worst place to deploy the military. Twenty-five years have passed since the military crackdown in Tiananmen Square - an eternity for the bereaved and exiled, a missing chapter in official Chinese history and an open wound for the nation.

With the events on that fateful day receding from living memory, and as first-hand accounts of what happened would be inaccessible if not accessed soon, the time has come to set the June 4 record straight. The demand for political correctness has turned many into revisionists or deniers, against the dictates of their conscience.

But when all is said and done, Chinese civilisation is bigger than blindfolded flag-waving in the name of patriotism.

Tiananmen Square is heavy with history, having witnessed the pillage of rampaging foreign troops, the glorious May Fourth Movement and the founding of the People's Republic. Since 1949, security forces have suppressed many democratic activities at Tiananmen. But deploying People's Liberation Army troops to crack down on students has happened only once - and likely for the last time - as the people will not accept another June 4.

Some things are undeniable. Between June 4, 1989 and June 4, 2014, so much good has happened. In the intervening years, China has gone on to achieve the greatest economic miracle in human history.

Nobody can deny that the Chinese Communist Party has lifted more than 200 million people out of poverty, turned China into the world's second-largest economy, sent satellites and space ships into orbit and churned out seven million university graduates a year, despite the fact that the university entrance examination was restored only in 1978 and academic degree system introduced in 1980. To some, this record of achievement is justification enough to distort the history of what happened on that fateful day a quarter of a century ago.

The Chinese are a history-conscious people. Time and again, our leaders have lectured Japan on the moral necessity of "respecting history" and "facing up to historical facts". Yet we don't practise what we preach. We shy away from the inconvenient facts of history about a day that shocked the world to its core.

In official Chinese annals, the military crackdown did not occur. For millions of Chinese people, especially the young people born post-Tiananmen, it did not occur either, until they set foot in Hong Kong.

It is not difficult to understand why the authorities want to sweep June 4 under the rug and indulge in collective amnesia. Their unchanging mantra is social stability and economic prosperity. But true stability resides in winning the hearts and minds of the people, in the promise of a fair and just society. This was the moral foundation and appeal of the Communist Party when it came to power in 1949. Major cities were liberated without bloodshed, because unlike the morally bankrupt Kuomintang, the Communist Party did not loot or steal from the people.

Power might have come from the barrel of a gun, as Chairman Mao famously said, but legitimacy comes from the moral fibre of those who have gained power. Stability cannot last if historical facts are distorted. When cadres and officials and the people below them see that truth can be distorted and suppressed, it numbs the sense of right and wrong. This is the root of rampant corruption in China.

A nation that is great enough to engineer economic miracles should be great enough to face the facts of history. It is in the national interest of a great civilisation to set up a truth commission made up of unimpeachable Chinese personalities with international credibility, such as Chinese-born Nobel physics laureate, Professor C.N. Yang.

The remit of the commission is to unearth the facts, not to apportion blame. In other words, truth-seeking is not a day of reckoning for those associated with the use of force during that tumultuous period.

The people are entitled to know how many were killed, wounded or secretly jailed and how many more were relentlessly persecuted and are still languishing in dark prison cells. By not pursuing punishment or accountability, political stability is unthreatened; by rehabilitating and compensating the victims, social harmony will be enhanced; and by admitting the wrong and right, national conscience will be restored.

The world has high hopes for the peaceful rise of China, which commands respect through moral authority and spiritual nobility.

June 4 is an extension of the May 4 movement and should be recognised as such. Henceforth, June 4 will be a time to commemorate the student democratic movement and for national reflection, not for noisy protests on the streets or anguish in the hearts that continue to tear at the national conscience.

C.K. Yeung teaches in the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong