Jim Furlong: Tiananmen Truths

I am in Ottawa. It always makes me feel very “Canadian” when I come here. We are surely one of the world’s great democracies and the envy of many nations. It’s a large mistake to think that democracy is where all humans are headed and is the natural order that will prevail in the world. Don’t bet on that.

Democratic reforms

It was an Irish Christian Brother who first put the notion in my head that the group we call the democratic way is the only way. It was some years after the Hungarian revolt had been smashed by the Soviets that we were told that any armed conflict with the Soviet Union would result in more Russians being shot in the back than by our soldiers. 

A Christian Brother told me that it just wasn’t so and that all people were not waiting for us to liberate them. 

Fast forward now to a day in June in 1989 when elements of the army of the People’s Republic of China finally cleared pro democracy demonstrators from Tiananmen Square where protesters had been encamped seeking from government democratic reforms. They didn’t get the reforms and after a standoff that lasted months the army moved in and protesters died. Lots of them. The western world was appalled. Chinese officials said about 250 people were killed including students and soldiers. Western observers say it was many more. I have been lucky enough to have visited China on two occasions. The first was in 1992 just a couple of years after what we call “the Tiananmen Square massacre.”

The second time was just a few years ago in 2015. There was a very heavy military presence my first-time round. Soldiers were everywhere and into everything, including directing traffic. You turn around and the army was visibly there. Twenty-five years later and the Communist Party was still very much in firm control of China. The army was still everywhere; you just couldn’t see them as much.

Unique historic version

What I found interesting was the Chinese version of history. A Chinese man who was part of our group and acting as a guide and translator was not able to go to Hong Kong from Shanghai because he didn’t have a travel visa for his own country. Hong Kong had only recently been returned to China from Britain under treaty.

It’s hard for us to conceive of needing a visa to go from Newfoundland to Ontario, but to him it was perfectly normal. It’s just the way things were. The Chinese I guess didn’t want too much Hong Kong influence on its people.   Even more interesting were our Shanghai Chinese guide’s thoughts on the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1992.

I raised the subject delicately, but he spoke firmly of “the heroes of Tiananmen.”  He wasn’t talking about student protesters for democracy. His heroes were the Chinese soldiers who had fought the student protesters and, as he said, had saved the People’s Republic. That is how he had been taught. It was the version of history that he knew. It’s not ours. Things were quiet in the square this year. 

NTV’s Jim Furlong can be reached by emailing: [email protected]

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