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Hong Kong Storm Over “Tiananmen Denial”

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on May 16th, 2007

A very important fact is revealed by the firestorm of indignation that has swept Hong Kong since pro-Beijing lawmaker Ma Lik 馬 力 denied on Tuesday that a "massacre" had taken place at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.  That fact is that cover-ups rarely work and that facts must usually be faced, sooner or later.

The massacre was is a defining moment in communist rule and remains well known outside China, though internally the Communist regime has maintained absolute silence on the subject, leaving those who have grown up since with only vague ideas—while foreigners mindful of Beijing’s "feelings" now tend to call an "incident" the party ordered rampage by tanks and troops that left mangled bodies scattered on the main streets of China’s capital.

Beijing is terrified of what will happen when those events are finally acknowledged officially in China and is testing, perhaps through Mr. Ma, ways of coping.

So for our purposes, the interest is in certain aspects of what he said and how he defended himself as public opinion piled on.

Most importantly, perhaps, he tried to blame foreigners for the whole thing, saying that Chinese should not allow "gweilos"—basically the n-word for non-Chinese—decide what happened in Chinese history.

Beijing does the same, playing with the fire of anti-Japanese feeling, criticizing the United States, seeking nationalistic glory through athletics and space exploration-all the while keeping speech unfree and facts unfaced.

Chinese xenophobia is ugly and poisonous as well as highly volatile. Politicians reach for it only when desperate.

Earlier Ma had blamed the fact that Chinese in Hong Kong still believed that the massacre had in fact been perpetrated on the failure of "proper national education" and on an inexplicable tendency of Hong Kong people, who still enjoy some freedoms, not to identify with China.

China of course has, since the massacre, imposed a comprehensive curriculum of "Patriotic Education" that glorifies the Party, twists and distorts history, and avoids difficult topics. This curriculum seems not to convince ordinary Chinese so much as to leave them puzzled and uneducated—and therefore curious about what they have not been told.

IMr. Ma made the statement about the persistence of belief that Tiananmen massacre in fact happened in the context of an argument that universal suffrage, promised to Hong Kong when China took over, could not be implemented until 2022—by which date half of the voters would have received proper education. (Earlier he had put the date at 2047, by which point all voters could have been indoctrinated).

A critic stated "we don’t want brainwashing."

China of course is in the difficult position of explaining why a country as advanced as it is cannot elect even local officials, while Japan, Taiwan, India, and many other countries are fully democratic. If Hong Kong has free election, demand for them in China will be unstoppable.

All of this tempest would be laughable in the Groucho Marx "who do you believe—me or your lying eyes?" school of comedy were the stakes for China and Hong Kong not so high.

Two anniversaries are coming up soon: June 1, when China took over Hong Kong with the agreement of the British but not the territory’s people, and June 4, when a vigil in the city traditionally commemorates the massacre. If the vigil overshadows the "celebrations" of Chinese rule, that will be very bad news for Beijing.

The massacre, it must be understood, was an error of such dimensions as to be beyond repair or apology, a fatal mistake that will certainly doom communist rule when its details are fully examined, as they will be, sooner or later. No amount of economic growth or swaggering on the international scene will be adequate when, finally, films taken that gruesome night almost twenty years ago are aired on China Central Television.

As long as the facts are known and aired in Hong Kong, moreover, information will leak into China too.

As for Hong Kong, people already vote there now, though only incompletely, and Mr Ma’s remarks will not enhance the prestige or prospects of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, of which he is chairman—and which Beijing supports.

Hong Kong is already a terrible headache for Beijing, which will only grow more painful if the events of June 4 are revisited and once again affect politics.

But how do you explain away an atrocity while confirming it took place? Said Ma the next day: "What I meant is to look at the incident rationally. It happened a long time ago. I was not insulting those who lost their lives in Tiananmen Square to fight for democracy." [emphasis supplied]

What he seems to be saying is, yes, it did happen, but can’t we just forget it? Because if we don’t somehow forget it, then nothing but trouble lies ahead."

The reaction to Mr. Ma’s remarks suggests that nothing has been forgotten, and that therefore trouble does lie ahead.

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