A rumour circulated on the internet late last month that Premier Wen Jiabao had suggested a reappraisal of the June 4 movement. Perhaps because of this, many more people posted online the infamous People's Daily editorial on April 26, 1989 that fatefully condemned the student protests as an anti-socialism upheaval. So I reread it. I'd read it so many times that I'd become numb to its content. This time, I tried to treat it as political comment, and read it with fresh eyes.
Between April and June in 2009, I visited the University of Hong Kong three times and watched from the sidelines the heated debate on June 4 that unfolded on campus that year. The dramatic result of the controversy was the ousting of HKU student union president Ayo Chan Yi-ngok, but the fiercest argument was between the Hong Kong and mainland students on their different views about the 1989 protests.
Some upset mainland students came to me for answers. I realised that their understanding of the movement was largely based on the so-called '4/26 editorial' and its conclusion that 'without firmly putting down this upheaval, our country would have no peace', and we could not enjoy the economic development today. I patiently filled in some of the missing history, but never thought to go through the editorial together with them.
The editorial marked a turning point in the June 4 movement. The late Zhao Ziyang said in his memoirs that the article ratcheted up the tension between the students and the government, radicalising the confrontation, and former premier Li Peng was the instigator. Zhao, then the party's general secretary, was visiting North Korea when Li took advantage of his absence to report to Deng Xiaoping an exaggerated account of the students' movement. Li then took the gist of Deng's response and directed the People's Daily to write an editorial based on it.
The editorial triggered a mass rally the next day, turning the student rallies into a wider pro-democracy movement. This led, step by step, to a military curfew, hunger strikes and eventually to the tragedy of a violent crackdown.
The editorial compiled an exaggerated list of the students' 'crimes', and called on the people to unite to fight this 'serious political war'. The people must 'tell right from wrong' and act to end this 'upheaval' quickly and firmly. Its conclusion shocked the nation, but few people examined its evidence for making such claims. What, according to the editorial, were the students accused of?
In just 1,000 or so characters, the editorial repeatedly castigated the 'abnormal' activities masquerading as memorial events for the late Hu Yaobang.
During the events, it said, 'a small minority took the opportunity to spread rumours and attacked party and state leaders by name'; they incited people to storm the Xinhua Gate at Zhongnanhai; they shouted slogans to bring down the Communist Party; and in Xian and Changsha, they broke the law through beatings, looting, and smashing and burning things.
After the memorial, it said, a very small number of people continued to take advantage of the students' grief at Hu's death to 'spread all kinds of rumours and mislead people'. They 'vilified and attacked party and state leaders' through posters; they 'openly violated the constitution and opposed party leaders and the socialist system'; some people formed illegal organisations in higher learning institutions to oust the student unions; some egged on students and teachers to strike, and forcibly prevented some from attending class; some usurped the name of workers' organisations to distribute reactionary handbills, and conspired with others to create more trouble.
These acts were so heinous, and so shocked the editorial writer that he used words like 'attack', 'ulterior motive' and 'blatant' to describe ... what? These are the facts: the students criticised party and state leaders, and questioned corruption at the top; they went to Xinhua Gate to petition the leaders and ended up clashing with police, and some people broke the law in a number of cities; they questioned the party's legitimacy and its policies; they organised themselves for demonstrations; they refused to attend class in protest; they distributed handbills; they mobilised and lobbied for support.
These are common activities in any democratic country, certainly nothing to be alarmed about. The unrest itself was also on a small scale compared with the kind of mass protests that often happen in Paris, London and New York. Apparently Deng was most upset by the students' 'attack on party and state leaders by name'. What kind of a crime is that? In today's context, the shrill outrage of such an editorial would be treated like a joke.
The editorial's title, 'It is necessary to take a clear-cut stand against upheaval', was also its conclusion. These words frightened us then, and they probably still do today. This is because the Cultural Revolution has long been seen as an upheaval, a breakdown of social order - and that's as far as we've gone in our reflection on this part of our history. Even now, when Wen sternly warned of the poisonous legacy of the Cultural Revolution, we don't see that the chaos was only the consequence, while the cause of it was autocratic leadership.
If we can't address the problem of autocratic leadership, a revision of the official verdict of June 4 won't do much good.
Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese