In the spring and summer of 1989, the Chinese communist authorities deployed their SS, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, to forcefully suppress peaceful demonstrators who were fighting corruption and demanding democracy and freedom, resulting in the death of some hundreds or thousands of innocent people. The dead included workers on their way to work, vendors selling watermelons in the streets, bystanders who were just there to witness that bloody moment in history, people who went out to buy medicine for their sick children, people who were in their own homes looking at the streets where the gunfire was taking place ……
In the aftermath of the crackdown, the Chinese Communist authorities did not acknowledge, admit, apologize, or compensate, and harassed the families of the victims and their supporters who demanded an apology and compensation from the government, while forbidding academics and private citizens from investigating and studying the history of the crackdown, and forbidding the Chinese media from talking about the crackdown, even from the perspective of glorifying the necessity of the Communist Party’s decisive decision to launch the crackdown.
Research on the massacre that turned the course of Chinese history is strictly forbidden in China, and for the past thirty years research has been conducted and published mainly in foreign countries. A new monograph by Jeremy Brown, a social historian at Simon Fraser University in Canada, June 4: The 1989 Tiananmen Protests and the Beijing Massacre, just published by Cambridge University Press, is a new study of the June 4 Incident.
In his book, Zhou describes his general approach: “In approaching the Beijing massacre as history, I have adopted a victim-centered general approach, naming those who were killed, naming the pushers of the massacre, citing the findings of the Tiananmen Mothers (a group of victims’ survivors), and accounting for who the dead were and what they were doing at the time of their deaths. “
On the issue of the main force of the massacre and the scale of the massacre, Zhou Jierong writes: “Among the troops that entered Beijing, two units, the (Chinese People’s Liberation Army) Army’s 38th Group Army and the 15th Airborne Army, were particularly prominent, firing directly at civilians all the way to Tiananmen Square as they approached from the west and south, respectively, strafing residential buildings, but many soldiers from other units either It was out of hesitation, fear or reluctance to target civilians for shooting did not shoot to kill. That massacre was a horrific atrocity. If dozens of other units had been as eager to shoot as the 38th and 15th Airborne, the massacre would have been far worse.”
The limitations faced as a foreign historical researcher are also reflected upon in Jay Jay’s book. He writes, “North American authors who write books or articles on June Fourth studies live in societies that espouse patriarchy, are sexist and white supremacist, and this reality also constrains scholars from deciding what is worth writing about.”
In an interview with Voice of America about his new published monograph, Jay said bluntly that he wrote his book as a breakthrough from the limitations of his previous research on the one hand, and in the hope that his book would be a breakthrough of sorts. He said, “I wrote this book to refute the propaganda and lies of the Chinese Communist Party.”
In the interview Zhou Jierong describes what he believes his new book advances over previous June Fourth studies, and briefly reviews some of the most important or noteworthy research findings in the past thirty years of June Fourth historical research, as well as the research of people within China under extremely harsh conditions.
The following is the second part of Zhou Jierong’s interview transcript. (The content of the article represents his personal views only)
Jin Zhe asks: In your book, you point out that many people have intentionally or unintentionally listened to the CCP’s lying propaganda about the June 4 massacre in Tiananmen Square, such as the fact that the June 4 massacre happened because student leaders like Chai Ling, under the manipulation of a black hand, deliberately provoked the CCP leaders into a corner, such as the fact that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3 and morning of June 4, 1989. In your opinion, did so many people listen to the CCP’s propaganda because it was too powerful, lasted too long, and had too strong an information blockade, or was there something else?
Hanna Arendt, a German political thinker, famously said, “The liar has an absolute advantage, which is to know in advance what the listener wants or expects to hear, and this makes the lie usually more credible and logical than the truth.” Do you agree with Arendt on this point? If not, why? If so, what do you think is the hope or breakthrough for a relatively truthful narrative in today’s China, where the information blackout is already number one in the world and public discourse is largely under the control of the Chinese Communist regime?
Jay Zhou A: I hope my book is a breakthrough. Because the purpose of my book is to refute the propaganda and lies of the Chinese Communist Party. My purpose is to write history in the same way that I write investigative journalism, to uncover the truth of the time. So although my book cannot be published in China, there is hope for the future. Many of my Chinese friends tell me you have to write this book, China needs this book, China needs to study June 4. So I hope people can see a historian doing very ordinary and very general historical research, which is what he should do. Showing this is also a breakthrough, and it’s a way to oppose lies and resist false propaganda.
But what you say about Hannah Arendt’s claim that liars have a natural advantage, I don’t particularly believe or agree with. Because it’s not a matter of mere propaganda, nor is it a matter of mere lies. Especially in ’89, ’90, ’91, the Chinese (when their memories were still fresh) knew what propaganda was and knew what was false. The Chinese are very smart and not stupid like the people of every country. They knew what was propaganda they knew what was the truth. They also know that the Chinese Communist Party is killing people with the PLA in a very horrible, horrible way.
It’s not a question of believing fake news and fake information, but what is the result if you oppose this lie? The result is that you will be arrested and your family will be implicated. This is the result of fear. So the breakthrough is that with the removal of fear comes curiosity to know how history really happened. I can now research and analyze. So the breakthrough is you have to leave the environment of fear in order to break through the false propaganda.
Some of my students are international students from China who have come to Canada to study history. They’re still a little bit fearful because they didn’t get to leave China completely, they still have family in China. They can be influenced by their families or the Chinese consulate in Vancouver, so there is some fear that saying the wrong thing will affect their families. But they are relatively freer and don’t have any bigger fears about things. They can start digging, they can start learning. And then they can start to say, oh, this is propaganda, this is the truth, this is the truth of history, this is a communist lie.
This I also think is the breakthrough. So I see Chinese students studying Chinese history in Canada, and it gives me a lot of hope.
Q: Suppose you only had three minutes to promote the distinctive excesses of your latest book, what would you say?
A: I would say that there are four parts of my book that are relatively new.
First, I explain the context of the 1980s in China. My perspective is to explain and understand why the Chinese were so happy in the 1980s, because they enjoyed new freedoms. Why they were unhappy was because their expectations were raised, but they did not get the freedom they hoped to get. They were unhappy to the point of being willing to demonstrate in the 1980s because of the new persecution that occurred in the 1980s. There were two major persecutions in the 1980s, one was family planning and the other was a severe crackdown. Many people’s freedom, especially the freedom to have children and the freedom to fall in love, was restricted by family planning and severe crackdowns. I found that some of the people who participated in the demonstrations and protests were victims of family planning or they were sympathetic to the victims of family planning. Either they were victims of the severe crackdown or they were sympathetic to the victims of the severe crackdown. These historical backgrounds may not be fully distinguished by some people. They do not know the impact of family planning and the severe crackdown in the 1980s.
The second part is the Beijing massacre. on June 3, June 4 there was the PLA shooting, and by June 5, June 6, and June 7 there were still killings. My perspective is different is very much influenced by the Tiananmen Mothers. I am trying to emphasize the perspective of the victims. Who are the victims. It was the watermelon sellers, it was the people who bought breakfast, it was the workers, it was the parents who were killed when they went out to buy medicine for their children who had a fever. The PLA strafed indiscriminately, so I’m analyzing these people where they were, what they were doing, what their names were to, and this to justify the non-necessity of the massacre, which is a new angle in my analysis of the massacre.
The third part is that I introduce and explain the new facts of the protests outside of Beijing. Many cities had their own hunger strikes, conversations between their own students and local city leaders or CCP provincial leaders, which were all very interesting. The dialogues in other cities outside of Beijing show new avenues of problem solving, especially the several dialogues between the students and the government in Shanxi, which are getting deeper, more serious and more interesting.
An analysis of protest movements outside of Beijing reveals many new elements, including the experience of many cities in dealing with, suppressing, and resolving demonstrations without the need for shooting and violence to resolve the movement. Shanghai is an example. Many cities are examples. Only in Lhasa in March of 1989 there was shooting and suppression, Chengdu also used very violent ways to suppress demonstrations, and Beijing of course June 3 and June 4 were directly shot by the PLA. This is quite unnecessary because many other cities in China did not use violence in solving their problems. So studying the 1989 protest movement outside of Beijing can also give us a lot of clues to think about (the Beijing massacre).
Finally, the fresh contribution of my book is an analysis of the so-called “double purge” movement. After June 4, in the second half of 1989, many people had to go through this double-cleaning movement in 1990. The so-called “double-cleaning” movement is a clean-up and investigation movement, which many scholars were completely unaware of. People at that time had to give an account of what they had done in April and May of 1989 and what people around them had done. My analysis shows that this double-cleaning movement is interesting because it has many similarities and differences with the political movements of the past. Many people did not want to say what he did, so they told falsehoods to mix it up and also to protect their friends. This was a very common phenomenon at the time.
But in the so-called “hardest-hit” areas, such as the Xinhua News Agency, the People’s Daily or some other units. It was more like a political movement in China in the 60s and 70s.
Q: Suppose you had only three minutes to tell people in China who are interested in Chinese history, in the historical study of the miracle of the June Fourth Massacre, what would you say about the most important and meaningful research on this historical subject that has been conducted by Western scholars over the past 30 years?
A: The most important study is the book Quelling the People: The Military Suppression of the Beijing Democracy Movement by Professor Timothy Brook of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). That book is also about the military history of the June 4 massacre, and that book was published in the early 1990s. Bu Zhengmin was not in China during the June Fourth Incident in 1989, but he went to China in the latter half of 1989 and 1990 to do research and write this book. His book is still reliable, and its greatest contribution to the study of the history of June 4 is to show and explain that the way the PLA entered the city, i.e., invaded the Chinese capital, was absurd and tragic, and that it was a failed political decision with many mistakes. His book is well written.
There is another book by Jonathan Unger. He teaches in Australia and is a sociologist. He edited a collection of essays titled The Pro-Democracy Protests in China: Reports from the Provinces. Armonk, NY: Sharpe, 1991. That book included many prominent scholars writing about their personal experiences in Xi’an, in Dalian, in Fujian, and in Shanghai. That book was about the student movement outside of Beijing, and there was a lot of new content, and it is still a very good book today.
About the student movement, there is a Chinese man who is now teaching in the United States. His name is Dingxin Zhao, and he wrote a book called The Power of Tiananmen: State-Society Relations and the 1989 Beijing Student Movement (Dingxin Zhao. The Power of Tiananmen: State-Society Relations and the 1989 Beijing Student Movement. Student Movement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001). His book, which is also available in Chinese, is a very good explanation of how the student movement started and what was wrong with it from all sides. Because of course the students made a lot of mistakes, it was not a perfect movement. So that book by Zhao Dingxin explains the ins and outs of the student movement, and it’s pretty well written.
There are two other Chinese, the most crucial one being Wu Renhua. Wu Renhua is my role model, and I contacted him for any questions or details I didn’t understand in my research on the history of June 4. He wrote three books (two of which are, Wu Renhua, The full record of the Tiananmen movement]. Alhambra, CA: Zhenxiang chubanshe, 2014; The martial law troops in the June Fourth incident [The martial law troops in the June Fourth incident]. (Alhambra, CA: Zhenxiang chubanshe, 2009). He was in China in May and June of ’89 and was a professor at the University of Political Science and Law. He was in the square on the night of June 3. After the repression he fled to Hong Kong, then to the United States, and he is now in Taiwan. All three of his books are very well written, and although he is not a professional historian, he is a professional scholar. His three books are very credible.
Another female professor is called He Xiaoqing (Rowena He), who is now at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She wrote a book, Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.) She interviewed Wang Dan, Shen Tong, and a leader of a student movement in Guangzhou of a student movement leader. She interviewed Wang Dan, Shen Tong, and a student movement leader in Guangzhou to get them to analyze their experiences. That’s also a very good book.
Regarding top CCP leaders, there are also scholars who study Deng Xiaoping, Zhao Ziyang, and Hu Yaobang. The best scholar is Professor Yen-Lin Chung of Taiwan’s Sing-Chi University, who is very good at analyzing and explaining the elder politics of the top leaders in the 1980s from a new perspective (Yen-Lin Chung, “The Ousting of General Secretary Hu Yaobang: The Roles Played by Peng Zhen and Other Party Elders,” China Review 19, no. 1 (2019): 89-122). He writes very well.
Excellent in this area is also the American scholar Julian Gewirtz. He also analyzes Chinese politics in the 1980s, especially the contribution that Zhao Ziyang made to reform and opening up (Julian Gewirtz. Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017).
However, I am not talking about too many of these works yet. Because it is very, very difficult to study June 4 because it is a restricted area. It is a subject that young scholars do not want to do because it is too difficult. If you do research in this area, you may not be able to go to mainland China anymore. But there are still these people who do research in this area, which is very admirable.
Q: I know I’m pushing this question a little bit, but I still want to ask: Do you know of any scholars in China who are doing academic research on the June Fourth Massacre? When I say Chinese scholars, I mean mainly those in Chinese universities? Do you know of any private Chinese scholarship on this massacre?
A: As a university professor in China, your job is to publish articles as well as write books. You have no way to do June Fourth research in China first, no way to go to the archives or do interviews to do oral histories and then publish articles and books, which is completely impossible. If Chinese people want to do research in this area, they can only do it underground or encourage me to do it, so my friends in Chinese universities are encouraging me to do it, because they can’t do it themselves. They couldn’t do it even if they wanted to.
The people who do research about June 4 in China are people who have lost everything, people who are already outside the system who are not afraid of the consequences at all. These people include the Tiananmen Mothers, Ding Zilin and Zhang Xianling, including the so-called thug writer Liao Yiwu. Liao interviewed many thugs. Because he was also called a thug at the time, he also went to jail. He also found many “thugs” who were thrown into prison. Liao Yibu dared to research because he had lost everything and he was willing to do it. Those thugs had no more units, their lives had been destroyed, so they dared to talk.
Ding Zilin and the Tiananmen Mothers, their contribution was the greatest. For my research. I couldn’t have written my book without their efforts. They have gone through all the unimaginable tragedies of parenthood, so they are willing to do this in memory of their children. That is very valuable.
In the case of Chinese university professors, the whole system does not allow them to do this kind of research. If you’re outside the system you can do it. But that will change in the future, I hope, and I hope that my book will provide some clues to new research topics.
I originally started teaching classes on the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing so that one day China would open up again and I would be able to go to archives and research and interview people freely, and one day I could actually do very professional research. But I finally decided that I should just write it now. Because historians can study the 1980s in China without having to wait. Although our information is incomplete now, and there are many limitations, we can throw in the towel. So I started to do it, and I think it’s worth doing.