Between the night of June 3 and the morning of June 4, 1989, before the cameras of the world’s media, the Chinese Communist Party deployed the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into Beijing, the capital of Communist-ruled China, to suppress peaceful demonstrators against corruption and for democracy, resulting in the deaths of some hundreds to thousands of people.
In the more than 30 years since the June 4 incident, the Communist authorities have first claimed a great victory in “suppressing counter-revolutionary riots” and then, through their government spokesperson, have publicly said that they hope people will soon “forget” about it. The Communist authorities have also repeatedly stated that decades of history have proven that the crackdown was necessary and beneficial to China’s economic development and the well-being of the Chinese people. The authorities also strictly prohibit Chinese people or the Chinese media from mentioning or commemorating June 4, even to prove the necessity of the June 4 crackdown.
In China today, Chinese people can be arrested and face jail time for even discussing the history of June 4 in their private homes. Every year, on the anniversary of the June 4 massacre, people who publicly wear white flowers or scatter white flowers or paper are arrested immediately. Chinese historical scholars are strictly forbidden to study the events, and those who violate the ban not only lose their jobs, but also their personal freedom.
At the same time, foreign scholars studying the June Fourth Incident also had difficulties. Such research is considered by the CCP authorities as a direct or indirect criticism of the CCP’s rule, and is consequently viewed with hostility and obstruction by the CCP authorities. When Xi Jinping, the current top leader of the CCP, was not in power, he referred to foreign critics of the CCP regime as “having nothing better to do”.
The CCP’s hostility and obstructionism have created many problems and oddities for foreign scholars to study. Difficulties include the fact that Chinese archives are not open to the public and researchers cannot or do not have access to interview people on the ground. Odd questions include the question posed by the Chinese Communist regime and those who defend it: should researchers respect the freedom of the people involved or the victims not to talk about the history of June 4?
Faced with all these difficult and strange questions, Professor Jeremy Brown, a social history researcher who studies Chinese history at Simon Fraser University in western Canada, can be considered a scholar who knows what he is doing. His new book, June 4: The Tiananmen Square Protests and the Beijing Massacre of 1989, was published by Cambridge University Press, a leading Western academic publisher, in April of this year.
The main arguments Zhou Jierong makes or affirms in this new historical book include the fact that the June 4 massacre was completely unnecessary and wrong, and that anyone who is willing to be reasonable can easily think of many ways to solve the protest problem without killing anyone at all, which the Chinese Communist authorities know very well, and that is why they have spared no effort to cover up the truth for more than 30 years after the massacre and This is why the Chinese authorities have gone to such great lengths to cover up the truth and prohibit people from speaking about it for more than thirty years after the massacre.
In Zhou’s view, a study of the 1989 protests and the Tiananmen massacre throughout China is of obvious importance in understanding the China of the past, the China of the present, and the China of the future; such a study needs to break through the obstruction and misinformation from the Chinese Communist authorities and from other sources.
One major source of misinformation he cites in his book is The Gate of Heavenly Peace, a documentary film produced by the American Karma and her husband Richard Gordon, which was once influential in the West and among many Chinese. He writes, “The more I’ve learned about 1989 since first watching the documentary, the more I’ve wanted to counter narratives that talk about the mistakes and failures of protesters, narratives that blame protest participants and bystanders for things they were not at fault for.”
For more than three decades, there have been many studies on the June 4 massacre. But for Zhou Jierong, one fatal flaw in many of these studies is that they “overemphasize the stories and influence of prominent student protesters, focusing on some of the university campuses in Beijing and Tiananmen Square itself, while downplaying what happened outside the square and university campuses and across China at the time, with narratives that go as far as the Chinese People’s Liberation Army seizing control of Tiananmen Square and the June 4 massacre. control and came to an abrupt end at dawn on June 4, leading to a one-sided view that, taken to its logical extreme, suggests that the students’ arguments and missteps spurred the authorities to order a military attack on Beijing.”
On the occasion of the publication of his new research monograph, June 4: The Tiananmen Protests and the Beijing Massacre of 1989, Professor Zhou Jierong gave an exclusive interview to Voice of America to give his views on the difficult and odd questions facing researchers of Chinese history and observers of Chinese issues today. These difficult and strange questions include how he sees the so-called respect for the Chinese people’s freedom not to talk about June 4, and how he sees the Chinese Communist regime not only not admitting its mistakes and not weakening after the June 4 crackdown, but also seemingly marching forward unstoppably.
The following is the first part of Zhou Jierong’s interview. (The content of this article represents his personal view.)
Jin Zhe asks: Seeing your new monograph published on the massacre that took place in Beijing in 1989, it is likely that some Chinese will ask you seriously, kindly, or without malice: More than 30 years have passed since the June 4 Tiananmen massacre, and many Chinese have forgotten or simply do not know about it. Why do you, as a foreigner and a Westerner, want to dig up that history which is so painful to many Chinese people?
Jay Zhou A: Let me first talk about the importance of June Fourth, its importance as history, and then I will talk about my own identity as a foreigner.
June 4 itself was a very important turning point for China in 1989. It was a time when millions of Chinese people demonstrated peacefully to demand freedom of speech, freedom of the press, to demand transparency, to demand opposition to corruption, to demand dialogue with the government at all levels. So it was a nationwide demonstration movement with millions of people participating. At that time it raised the expectations of many Chinese people for the future, and this turning point in history itself has value for us to understand, analyze, and explain.
This movement was suppressed in a very violent way by the Communist mobilization of the PLA, who shot at the masses and killed innocent people. The suppression of this movement in Beijing, which was the June 4th massacre in Beijing from the night of June 3rd to the morning of June 4th, is a question that deserves to be studied. I think the task of the historian is to analyze important issues, and also to analyze painful issues.
That in itself is my job. My task is not to avoid complex issues, nor is it to serve one government or one political party. My job is to analyze, explain and understand complex issues. Because June 4 was an event that the Chinese Communist Party sought to conceal and cover up the truth, I was more interested and curious. My students, including Chinese students in Canada, were also very curious. They are more curious to understand because the truth of this event is being concealed. So this event itself is worth studying.
Also, I am a foreigner. I have been going to China less and less in the last few years, but in the last ten years I have been going to China or in Canada or the United States, and I talk to Chinese people about my book. Whenever I say I’m going to write a book about June 4, every Chinese person says yes, you should write it, and I encourage you to write it. All the Chinese people say to me, we need you, we need this kind of book, so they are encouraging me to write it.
Because Chinese people are not free to write this book, Chinese people’s freedom is restricted. This historical event is so sensitive that it is too dangerous to write it in China, so it can only be written by foreigners. So it’s not that foreigners want to slander or harass China, I can write just because I’m okay, I’m safe, and I can enjoy freedom of speech and academic freedom in Canada. This is a very important task for me to study China.
Q: A well-known observer and commentator on China who has lived in China for more than 20 years on the Deutsche Welle Chinese website for Chinese audiences once published an article saying that in today’s China, people enjoy all kinds of freedom, including the freedom not to want to recall certain historical events in the past that caused them pain, and that as foreigners they should respect this freedom of the Chinese people and should not use the past to coerce or harass the Chinese people. or harassment. I don’t want you to criticize that gentleman, but I would like to ask if you think that gentleman’s argument (which is also common among many people today) is valid, or is it a rascal? Or is it surprising or surprisingly naive, so to speak?
A: I have a hard time accepting this person’s point of view. I can accept that some people don’t want to remember that period of history. If you don’t want to remember June 4, you can not buy my books or read my books. He has this freedom, I have no problem with this. I also have sympathy. Many Chinese people feel pain because they are survivors or victims, and I can understand that.
When I wrote this book I didn’t want to talk about it either, because the history was so painful. I myself have vicarious trauma as a result. When I came very deep into the stories of the people who were killed, I also found it too painful, and sometimes I woke up so depressed that I didn’t want to work or write because it was too painful to write about such things. I can understand all of that.
But why do I have to write and research? It is to honor the lives of those victims. I am trying to document the stories of victims and survivors. If we completely forget about the innocent people who were killed, completely forget about them, the pain will be greater and more severe. So my biggest problem with the point this German is making is that what he’s saying has nothing much to do with freedom, it’s not a question of freedom or not freedom, but precisely a question of not freedom.
Because if you want to document the June 4 massacre in Beijing, if you want to openly say open research, this is very dangerous in China. Because the Communist Party is still around, it will still deal with you in a violent way. It will arrest you, it will invite you to tea. It’s not a question of China having the freedom to forget June 4, it’s a question of the Chinese not having the freedom to remember. The horrors of that time still continue today.
So if you don’t want to remember, I will respect you and I will understand why you can’t safely remember that very sensitive period of history. So I think it’s a matter of personal safety for Chinese people, not a matter of avoiding painful history.
Q: You write in your book that the June 4 massacre was neither necessary nor inevitable. But there are those, among them many Chinese, who believe that existence is justified and justified, and that while the June 4 bloodshed was regrettable, there was a need for the highest Chinese Communist Party authorities at the time to handle the protests in Beijing (and in Chengdu and elsewhere) as they did. It was necessary, for example, for China’s political stability and consequent great economic development, and for the well-being of the vast majority of the Chinese people. The very smart entrepreneur Jack Ma has publicly expressed this view. What are your comments on this view as a researcher of Chinese history and society?
A: I can answer this question in two ways. The first aspect is that this kind of statement is precisely what Deng Xiaoping said at that time and what Xi Jinping thinks today. It is also called for the sake of China’s stability and economic development. Only the peaceful demonstrations of that time could be suppressed.
But this argument I think is too pessimistic and too pathetic an idea, because the choice listed in this view is whether you want freedom or economic development, or freedom or stability. It only allows you to choose one, and you can only have one. But sorry, freedom we can’t give you, we can only give you economic development. This kind of reasoning I think belongs to a very poor thinking, why can’t you have both (both freedom and stability, or both freedom and economic development) na? Both contribute to economic development and do not lead to unrest, so why not both?
The second aspect is that if you want to suppress peaceful demonstrations, if you can agree with the reasoning of the former Deng Xiaoping and today’s Xi Jinping, which is to protect stability can only deal with and suppress this movement, although I myself do not agree with this reasoning, but if you are agreeing, why do you have to use the army, use the PLA, shoot and use tanks to strafe innocent people? I think this is too much. I can think of a dozen peaceful ways to deal with it, or non-lethal ways to resolve it.
So this view of Ma’s, Deng Xiaoping’s approach and until today Xi Jinping’s endorsement of Deng Xiaoping’s approach I totally disagree with. Why should the PLA be used? It’s totally unnecessary.
You can wait for the students to leave naturally, and let nature take its course and they will leave. You can use the police, you can use a non-lethal approach, you can use a less hasty, some more patient approach to solve the problem. Why do you have to use the PLA? That was a very big mistake. So the Chinese Communist authorities can only continue to hide the truth. This is one of the most important reasons why the Chinese Communist authorities want to cover up the truth, because using the PLA is too much and is totally unnecessary.
Q: You believe that the June 4 massacre was neither necessary nor inevitable. I can believe you are sincere when you say that. But there are people who believe that although the June 4 bloodshed was a tragedy, it was necessary to suppress it, otherwise it would have led to more tragedies or more misfortunes, which would have been bad for China and bad for the Chinese people. I can also believe that some people who say so are also sincere and are not playing fraud. What do you as a social historian have to say to this kind of Rashomon of historical arguments that are justified by the public and justified by the private?
A: My answer is that this view that only a few thousand innocent people can be killed for the happiness of everyone is not justified to me. It is somewhat similar to what I just answered.
I can also say that June 4 led to something. What did the June 4 massacre, the June 4 crackdown, and the post-June 4 crackdown that continues to this day lead to? It has led to a lot of tragedies, a lot of misfortunes. You can ask a Tibetan, ask a person from Xinjiang, ask a Uighur in a concentration camp. It’s all because the Communist Party has not increased transparency and instead of addressing it has worsened corruption.
The lack of freedom of speech has also worsened the Greater Han Chinese nationalism. You can look at human rights lawyers, look at Liu Xiaobo, these are all tragedies that resulted from June 4. I don’t know what the future of China would have been if the shooting had not taken place and the PLA had not been used. But we do know that the shooting led to a result that many Chinese people feel discontent with. That’s a fact, that’s what we can see actually happened.
Q: I read your newly published monograph on the social history of the June 4 massacre. I can’t say that I read it very carefully, and I can’t say that I understood it in a coherent way. But I have a strong impression that the way you write this monograph is very much like the serious investigative journalism that I am familiar with, and also like Sima Qian’s “The Records of the Grand Historian”. Sima Qian is still considered in China as the greatest historian and essayist of all time. Sima Qian also happens to like to see history by individuals, to state and interpret history from the perspective of ordinary people or even peddlers, rather than just seeing the course of history as a record of the activities of emperors, kings and social elites. I would like to ask, how do you think your writing style or perspective of looking at history is similar or the same as Sima Qian’s, and how is it different?
A: This question is interesting and makes me very happy. Because this question shows that I have achieved my purpose. Investigative journalism, as you call it, was also the beginning of my learning to dig into the issues. My earliest background was as a news reporter. When I was in high school, I was the editor of my high school student newspaper. I was also the editor of my university’s newspaper. After I graduated from college, when I was thinking about what I wanted to do in the future, I thought whether I wanted to be a journalist or a teacher. At that time, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I finally decided to become a teacher. But the way I write, the way I research, and the way I dig up important hidden history is also very much related to my background in investigative journalism.
When it comes to Sima Qian’s writing style, I can say that I share his sympathy for marginalized people and stories. I also want to hear the stories of ordinary people, ordinary people, and understand the interactions and interactions between ordinary people and top leaders. If my writing style is similar to Sima Qian’s, it is not my intention. I did not take him as my role model. If there are similarities, they are accidental. I teach Chinese history at Simon Fraser University in Canada, and I teach ancient history as well as modern history.
When I taught ancient history, I didn’t think that ancient Chinese history was too relevant to today’s China or contemporary Chinese history. That’s why I’m very uncomfortable with some journalists or some historians who compare Mao Zedong to an emperor, Deng Xiaoping to a modern emperor, and even Xi Jinping as a new emperor today.
Because I think the Chinese Communist Party is a completely modern dictatorship. It has cultural ties to the imperial system of the past, but its technology and its unification system are modern. So if you were to find a suitable analogy for Mao, his counterpart would have to be Stalin. If you were to find a suitable analogy for Xi Jinping, it would have to be Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jinping is not an emperor.
So it’s only by chance that my writing style has similarities to Sima Qian’s. I’m glad to hear you say that, but that’s not my intention.
Q: You say in your big book that much of the earlier scholarly narrative about the June 4 massacre overemphasized the stories and influence of some prominent student protesters, focusing on some of the university campuses in Beijing and Tiananmen Square while downplaying what happened outside the city of Beijing and elsewhere in China, and that this narrative came to an abrupt end when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army took control of Tiananmen Square in 1989. This leads to a kind of one-sided presentation of the scene …….
Seeing you say that, I have a question, and that is, if someone were to say that your research on the June 4 incident and the history of the June 4 massacre, moving the focus away from the famous student leaders, the university campuses in Beijing and Zhongnanhai, how is that not also a one-sided or simplistic? Is this your professional bias or prejudice, bias? How would you respond to such a question?
A: The task of historians is to write and expand new knowledge, but new knowledge cannot be completely separated from the history written in the past.
Most of the past scholarship on the June Fourth Incident has focused on the student movement in Beijing and the high-level wrestling in Beijing between the Communist Party of China and the Central Committee. These are important and cannot be ignored. My book does not neglect these either, but the weight is not as heavy. This is in order to have more space to write about fresher content.
The history outside of Beijing is very important. In addition to the students, ordinary Beijing citizens, workers, others, their stories, their voices, many of us have not heard. The continuing repression after June 4 has not been analyzed by many scholars either. So my task is to analyze what is new, and of course there will be new one-sidedness and new biases, this I can admit.
My purpose is to inspire future scholars to correct my biases, and my task is to correct the biases of the past. Future scholars can continue to dig into whose voices I have ignored. I hope that more Chinese and foreign scholars will come in the future to continue their research and make up for correcting my bias.
Q: One might say that the masses are certainly more than just a pile of meat, and certainly have their free will and their actions, but in an authoritarian and even centralized country like China, we have seen that the protests of tens of millions and hundreds of millions of people can be beaten down by a single order from the dictator Deng Xiaoping, but the earth still runs and runs well. So, some people would say that when writing history, especially when writing the history of the June Fourth Incident, focusing on the top leadership of the CCP is a more reliable perspective to grasp history. How are you prepared to refute this argument?
A: We really need to understand and study the history of the top leadership, including to study the Mao era we must study the way Mao chose, the logic of thinking, his decisions, we really need to study. In the June 4 incident, Deng Xiaoping was a key figure, Zhao Ziyang was important, Li Peng was important, and the other central leaders were also important. So we need those experts who study the high-level politics of the CCP to analyze it, but I’m not that kind of scholar.
I am a social historian. My contribution is to dig into the bottom, or the grassroots of the people, or the voices of ordinary people, how they influenced Deng Xiaoping’s decisions. That’s my contribution.
Different aspects of research are needed. I am researching from my perspective. Scholars who study the top leaders of the CCP can contribute from their perspective, which is all needed. In the June Fourth Incident, the decisions of the CCP leadership were particularly important, and Deng Xiaoping was very crucial. Now in China Xi Jinping is key, and we really need to understand and explain his decision-making process.
I am an American and a Canadian. I’ve been in Canada for 13 years, and I’m a dual citizen. So I can’t help but follow American politics as well. You see how Trump’s America is different from Biden’s America? They have very different policies. So it’s important for us to study and understand the leadership of a country. Because their decisions and policies affect the daily lives of ordinary people, even their lives.
In the case of the June 4 massacre, Deng Xiaoping decided to use the PLA, and as a result, hundreds to thousands of people were killed. That was Deng Xiaoping’s choice. So we have to understand Deng Xiaoping. But my contribution is to understand who those victims were, their names, what were they doing when they were killed? Why were they out on the street? Why were they outside? How their deaths are explained, we need that kind of research perspective.
Q: In your new published book, June 4: The Tiananmen Protests and the Beijing Massacre of 1989, you affirm and emphasize the agency of society at large in advancing the historical process. But one could argue that, yes, the Chinese society at large loves freedom as much as the society at large in any country, and has been doing its best to protect and expand freedom, but the trajectory of history shows that China is becoming less and less free today, with the Chinese Communist regime crushing freedom of the press, crushing human rights lawyers, crushing victims of domestic tainted vaccines and milk powder, crushing religious believers, crushing migrant children’s schools, crushing Tibetans, crushing the Tibetan people, crushing the Tibetan people. (Tibetans), Uyghurs, Hong Kong, and now it is setting up to crush Taiwan and seems to be unstoppable.
How do you refute this pessimism about China’s future? I am not asking you to give up teaching and go into politics and make political speeches, but I am asking you, as a scholar of Chinese social history, whether you think that the historical process in China over the past 20 years has been moving in the opposite direction of freedom? If so, what is wrong with the dynamism of Chinese society at large or what has happened?
A: This is a very good question and a difficult one to answer. Because you mentioned so many examples that show that the Chinese people’s dynamism is limited and the Chinese people’s freedom is restricted. This is all undeniable, but the dynamism is still there. And dynamism is inseparable from the contingency of history.
By dynamism I mean how one can influence history, and by chance I mean what happens by chance. It is difficult to predict how chance can also influence history. For example, when June 4 came, Zhao Ziyang was going abroad to North Korea. He did not expect that his absence from Beijing would affect the handling of the democracy movement at the top of the CCP. As a result, there was a big change at the top of the CCP, and instead of continuing to handle the student movement as Zhao Ziyang had envisioned, they adopted the approach of Li Peng and Deng Xiaoping, and this is the contingency of history.
The dynamism of the time also manifested itself in the decision of the students to go on hunger strike. The students made a decision that influenced the course of the pro-democracy movement. Some people say that was a mistake, some say it was a very smart strategy.
The Chinese now have the ability to move, but it’s a matter of personal safety. So I can well understand that Chinese people don’t want to talk about June 4, don’t want to talk about politics, or don’t want to touch sensitive topics. That’s also energetic. It’s all about protecting themselves. They don’t want to talk about politics, they don’t want to talk about politics with an authoritarian system that is willing to use violence, they don’t want to fight them hard, and that’s also energetic.
To speak of contingency, Xi Jinping wants to stay in power and be the leader of China until he is in his 80s. But serendipity tells us that Xi Jinping may not be there tomorrow, or he may not be there next year. It’s all very hard to say.