Thursday, June 5, 2014

May the 35th be with you

Just the other day I groused to a friend how people are gonna get so fed up with our government they'll eventually rise to act. You know, parading my ignorance.

I wondered aloud why China's vast population hadn't risen by now against its oppressive government.

Then I remembered it tried, 25 years ago this week. And I remember I drew a cartoon about it.

Remembering is a thing I can do. Also writing "June 4." And grousing about it to a friend. Such things, as I understand, one cannot do in China.

One is not supposed to know about June 4, 1989, in which China's People's Liberation Army crushed a pro-democracy protest at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and across China. No one knows how many were killed — Hundreds? Thousands? — after China put a sudden end to more than a month of demonstrations.

It began in April 1989 with the death of a Communist Party official who advocated reforms to government policies that invited corruption and nepotism, destabilized the economy and left college students with few career prospects.

Memorials to Hu Yaobong's death by college students grew into something else and much larger, and at one point as many as 1 million people filled Tiananmen Square, and protests spread to hundreds of cities and included hunger strikes, sit-ins, and demands from unionized students for speech and press freedoms.

China's government let all of this go for awhile, the power elite squabbling and posturing about what to do, and even showed small signs of support, or at least conciliation.

Then it declared martial law at the end of May, finding it helpful to brand the protestors as terrorists and counter-revolutionaries. Soldiers over the course of three days fought the demonstrators, with orders to clear the square by nightfall June 4 using any means necessary, which meant guns and tanks.

Today, June 5, is the 25th anniversary of the most iconic image of these events — the still-unknown man who alone stood in front of a long column of People's Liberation Army tanks rolling on the square. Video shows him and the lead tank even doing a bit of a dance as the tank tries to go around the man.

Its memory dims — its memory never existed for many Chinese. What many of us also forget is that after the man climbed on a tank to talk to its operators, someone eventually came to push him out of the tanks' path, and the machines rolled on to the remaining protestors.

China at least does the exhausting work of enforced passivity for its people — or maybe enforced amnesia. How can one remember or act on an event, after all, that never existed?

News gatherers this week shared in the novelty of interviewing Chinese people, many of them college students who had never heard of these events in 1989. Many of them said they were more focused on finding jobs. Those who did know used clever ways to find information about it, referring to the anniversary as May 35 rather than June 4 to skirt China's attempts to purge the event from collective memory.

We here, by contrast, know so much — maybe not all we have the right to know, maybe not the truth about so many things, not by a long shot — but we know what millions of Chinese don't about their own country.

We know money runs our own government, that corporate money trumps you and you and you and you. And you. We have some idea of how our political system works, also how it's supposed to work. We have it in our power to change it.

Yet we fall short, enforcing passivity on ourselves. In California the voter turnout for this week's primary was a brownout, a record low, less than 20 percent of those registered to vote. Supposedly we're content; supposedly we don't think we have much say in the outcome.

Tomorrow marks another turning point, the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion on the beaches of Normandy, D-Day.

What were they fighting for again? Memory dims.

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