On June 4, 1989, 30 years ago, China massacred protesters in and around Tiananmen Square in China.
The event reminds me of the best and worst in people — in their actions at the time, and in reactions since.
The worst is clear, of course. China brutally killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, and sent a message of ugliness and totalitarianism.
And among the worst reactions I know of, there is the famous Donald Trump praise for the massacre:
When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak.
Some extraordinarily dishonest hacks have claimed that is not praise, pointing to the use of the words “vicious” and “horrible.” The kindest thing you could possibly say about such people is that they should never be taken seriously about anything. Ever. The rest of us can read. We are not stupid and, unlike these sycophants, we are not liars.
And yes, it’s critically important to point out the President’s repulsive praise on this awful anniversary.
So that’s the bad.
But then, there are the heroes. Everyone knows about Tank Man, the anonymous man who stood up to the line of tanks. But he should never be forgotten. Here is a picture of him.
Finally, there are the protestors themselves. As I prepare to see the Long Beach Symphony perform Beethoven’s Ninth on Saturday night (never miss a performance if you can manage it!), I commend to you the Following The Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony (affiliate link), a fantastic documentary which tells the stories of different ways in which Beethoven’s final symphony provided solace and comfort to freedom fighters in places from Chile to China. Here is a stirring description of the power of music:
On the square, Beethoven’s Ninth became part of Feng’s crime against the state. Once engaged as an organizer, Feng set up a makeshift broadcasting system, cobbled together with car batteries and loudspeakers provided by both university students and working people from the surrounding neighborhood. The improvised system could not compete with the government speakers that lined the square, broadcasting the droning speeches of Li Peng and other lesser apparatchiks who tried to convince those arriving by the tens of thousands to stay home or return to school.
Feng described a singular moment on the square when Beethoven’s Ninth summed up everything he hoped for his country.
With over a thousand students on a hunger strike in the square, Li Peng announced martial law on May 19. In the square, Feng pulled out a cassette. “The students, when we heard the announcements,” he told me, “we were so angry — and I put on the cassette of Beethoven’s Ninth to cover the voice of the government system. So there was a real battle for voice. Hundreds of thousands of students shouting, as we broadcast the music on the square louder than the government system. I just had a feeling of winning, of triumph.”
Feng played the final movement of the Ninth, featuring the “Ode To Joy” with the key line Alle Menschen warden Bruder (All men will be brothers) because “it gave us a sense of hope, solidarity, for a new and better future. And it was really fantastic that it changed us, transformed us. We feel finally we regained our dignity as human beings. We were separated by the government, but now we are free. We just feel free. So on the square, we feel a collective feeling of joy. We were free at last.”
Yes, it ended in bloodshed and tragedy — an outcome few except the most soulless could praise. But for a moment, music provided unity for people opposing a tyrannical government. And as long as we remember, it will not have been for nothing.
As long as we remember.
[Cross-posted at The Jury Talks Back.]